Focus on crap detecting: Postman and Weingartner

This is the third in the end-of-year series that have focussed on aspects of politics. This one uses Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s brilliant 1969 paperback Teaching as a Subversive Activity as the framework for this piece. I found this book facilitated more insights into the purposes of education that most of the formal texts on education. I was disappointed when I lost my copy some years ago, but delighted recently when I found a PDF version published online by Oregon State University.

The title of the first chapter was ‘Crap Detecting’, which although written in the context of the educational process, has significant implications for the political process. This piece gathers together parts of this chapter, in italics, which I annotate with comments, in bold, that relate Postman and Weingartner’s words to contemporary politics. Any bolding of the original text is mine.

The ‘Crap Detecting’ chapter begins:

“'In 1492, Columbus discovered America....' Starting from this disputed fact, each one of us will describe the history of this country in a somewhat different way. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that most of us would include something about what is called the 'democratic process', and how Americans have valued it, or at least have said they valued it. Therein lies a problem: one of the tenets of a democratic society is that men be allowed to think and express themselves freely on any subject, even to the point of speaking out against the idea of a democratic society. To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of this freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively. This is necessary so that the society may continue to change and modify itself to meet unforeseen threats, problems and opportunities. Thus, we can achieve what John Gardner calls an, 'ever-renewing society'.

"So goes the theory." 

While facts are important, the most important role of schools must be to inculcate the ability to reason, to challenge ‘conventional wisdom’, to exercise freedom of thought and action. The strong emphasis the Government is giving to education as the foundation for a strong economy, a just society, and a vibrant democracy, is not just laudable, it is essential.

"In practice, we mostly get a different story. In our society as in others, we find that there are influential men at the head of important institutions who cannot afford to be found wrong, who find change inconvenient, perhaps intolerable, and who have financial or political interests they must conserve at any cost. Such men are, therefore, threatened in many respects by the theory of the democratic process and the concept of an ever-renewing society. Moreover, we find that their are obscure men who do not head important institutions who are similarly threatened because they have identified themselves with certain ideas and institutions which they wish to keep free from either criticism or change."

This is what Stiglitz says in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality. Postman and Weingartner were saying it over four decades ago, in 1969. Moreover, we see contemporaneously how some have become so wedded to certain ideas, such as global warming being a hoax, that they are threatened by anything that contradicts their beliefs. Just last week we saw them cherry-pick parts of the latest IPCC report to support their beliefs.

"Such men as these would much prefer that the schools do little or nothing to encourage youth to question, doubt, or challenge any part of the society in which they live, especially those parts which are most vulnerable. 'After all,' say the practical men, 'they are our schools, and they ought to promote our interests, and that is part of the democratic process, too’. True enough; and then we have a serious point of conflict. Whose schools are they, anyway, and whose interests should they be designed to serve? We realize that these are questions about which any self-respecting professor of education could write several books each one beginning with a reminder that the problem is not black or white, either/or, yes or no. But you will not expect us to be either professorial or prudent. We are, after all, trying to suggest strategies for survival as they may be developed in our schools, and the situation requires emphatic responses. We believe that the schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism. No. That is not emphatic enough. Try this: in the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.'

"It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap'. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'."

Here is the nub of the problem we as a nation need to resolve now. Although it has always been so in Australian politics, how many would disagree that these last two years have been beset with an unprecedented avalanche of political crap, whether it is about global warming and the effect of a price on carbon, about the economy, about the Government’s stewardship of it especially through the GFC, about the HIP and the BER, about the best way forward in health and education? And almost all of it has come from the Coalition and its leadership, and faithfully echoed by the much of mainstream media. If ever we needed ‘a built-in, shockproof crap detector’, we have needed it since 2010. All but the rusted-on have installed a crap detector, and as a sad result, many are turning away from political discourse. It is in our schools that crap detecting needs to be taught and learned.

Back to Postman and Weingartner: "There are many ways of describing this function of the schools, and many men who have. David Riesman, for example, calls this the 'counter-cyclical' approach to education, meaning that schools should stress values that are not stressed by other major institutions in the culture. Norbert Wiener insisted that the schools now must function as 'anti-entropic feedback systems', 'entropy' being the word used to denote a general and unmistakable tendency of all systems - natural and man-made - in the universe to 'run down', to reduce to chaos and uselessness. This is a process that cannot be reversed but that can be slowed down and partly controlled. One way to control it is through 'maintenance'. This is Eric Hoffer's dream, and he believes that the quality of maintenance is one of the best indices of the quality of life in a culture. But Wiener uses a different metaphor to get at the same idea. He says that in order for them to be an anti-entropic force, we must have adequate feedback. In other words, we must have instruments to tell us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by 'crap detecting'. It is also what John Gardner means by the 'ever-renewing society', and what Kenneth Boulding means by 'social self-consciousness'. We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most 'subversive' intellectual instrument - the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rivals its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

"We need hardly say that achieving such a perspective is extremely difficult, requiring, among other things, considerable courage. We are, after all, talking about achieving a high degree of freedom from the intellectual and social constraints of one's tribe. For example, it is generally assumed that people of other tribes have been victimized by indoctrination from which our tribe has remained free. Our own outlook seems 'natural' to us, and we wonder that other men can perversely persist in believing nonsense. Yet, it is undoubtedly true that, for most people, the acceptance of a particular doctrine is largely attributable to the accident of birth. They might be said to be 'ideologically inter-changeable', which means that they would have accepted any set of doctrines that happened to be valued by the tribe to which they were born. Each of us whether from the American tribe, Russian tribe, or Hopi tribe, is born into a symbolic environment as well as a physical one. We become accustomed very early to a 'natural' way of talking, and being talked to, about 'truth'. Quite arbitrarily, one's perception of what is 'true' or real is shaped by the symbols and symbol-manipulating institutions of his tribe. Most men, in time, learn to respond with favour and obedience to a set of verbal abstractions which they feel provides them with an ideological identity. One word for this, of course, is 'prejudice'. None of us is free of it, but it is the sign of a competent 'crap detector' that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up. In our own society, if one grows up in a language environment which includes and approve such a concept as 'white supremacy', one can quite 'morally' engage in the process of murdering civil-rights workers. Similarly, if one is living in a language environment where the term 'black power' crystallizes an ideological identity, one can engage, again quite 'morally', in acts of violence against any non-black persons or their property. An insensitivity to the unconscious effects of our 'natural' metaphors condemns us to highly constricted perceptions of how things are and, therefore, to highly limited alternative modes of behaviour.

"Those who are sensitive to the verbally built-in biases of their 'natural' environment seem 'subversive' to those who are not. There is probably nothing more dangerous to the prejudices of the latter than a man in the process of discovering that the language of his group is limited, misleading, or one-sided. Such a man is dangerous because he is not easily enlisted on the side of one ideology or another, because he sees beyond the words to the processes which give an ideology its reality. In his ‘May Man Prevail?’ Erich Fromm gives us an example of a man (himself) in the process of doing just that:

"The Russians believe that they represent socialism because they talk in terms of Marxist ideology, and they do not recognize how similar their system is to the most developed form of capitalism. We in the West believe that we represent the system of individualism, private initiative, and humanistic ethics, because we hold on to our ideology, and we do not see that our institutions have, in fact, in many ways become more and more similar to the hated system of communism.

"Religious indoctrination is still another example of this point. As Alan Watts has noted: 'irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness - an act of trust in the unknown' And so 'crap detecting' require a perspective on what Watts calls 'the standard-brand religions'. That perspective can also be applied to knowledge. If you substitute the phrase 'set of facts' for the word 'religion' in the quotation above, the statement is equally important and accurate.

"The need for this kind of perspective has always been urgent but never so urgent as now. We will not take you again through that painful catalogue of twentieth-century problems we cited in our introduction There are, however, three particular problems
[summarized below] which force us to conclude that the schools must consciously remake themselves into training centers for 'subversion'. In one sense, they are all one problem but for purposes of focus may be distinguished from each other.

"The first goes under the name of the 'communications revolution’ or media change…Very few of us have contemplated more rigorously what is happening through media change than Jacques Ellul who has sounded some chilling alarms. Without mass media, Ellul insists, there can be no effective propaganda. With them, there is almost nothing but. 'Only through concentration of a large number of media in a few hands can one attain a true orchestration, a continuity, and an application of scientific methods of influencing individuals.' That such concentration is occurring daily, Ellul says, is an established fact, and its results may well be an almost total homogenization of thought among those the media reach…

"Still another way of saying this is that, while there has been a tremendous increase in media there has been, at the same time, a decrease in available and viable 'democratic' channels of communication because the mass media are entirely one-way communication…No one can reach many people unless he has access to the mass media." 

Remember, these words were written over forty years ago. Today we know how prescient they were. And we now know that the only way we can counter the mass media, the Fourth Estate, is via the burgeoning Fifth Estate.

"We come then to a second problem which makes necessary a 'subversive' role for the schools. This one may appropriately be called the 'change revolution'. In order to illustrate what this means, we will use the media again and the metaphor of a clock face. [Remember, Postman and Weingartner wrote their book over forty years ago.] Imagine a clock face with sixty minutes on it. Let the clock stand for the time men have had access to writing systems. Our clock would thus represent something like three thousand years, and each minute on our clock fifty years. On this scale, there were no significant media changes until about nine minutes ago. At that time, the printing press came into use in Western culture. About three minutes ago, the telegraph, photograph, and locomotive arrived. Two minutes ago: the telephone, rotary press, motion pictures, automobile, aeroplane and radio. One minute ago, the talking picture. Television has appeared in the last ten seconds, the computer in the last five, and communications satellites in the last second. The laser beam - perhaps the most potent medium of communication of all - appeared only a fraction of a second ago…" [And social media just a few microseconds ago.]

"All of which brings us to the third problem: the 'burgeoning bureaucracy'. We are brought there because bureaucracies, in spite of their seeming indispensability, are by their nature highly resistant to change. The motto of most bureaucracies is, ‘Carry on, regardless'. There is an essential mindlessness about them which causes them, in most circumstances, to accelerate entropy rather than to impede it. Bureaucracies rarely ask themselves Why?, but only How?... "

Postman and Weingartner conclude their chapter on ‘Crap Detecting’ thus:

"What is the necessary business of the schools? To create eager consumers? To transmit the dead ideas, values, metaphors, and information of three minutes ago? To create smoothly functioning bureaucrats? These aims are truly subversive since they undermine our chances of surviving as a viable, democratic society. And they do their work in the name of convention and standard practice. We would like to see the schools go into the anti-entropy business. Now, that is subversive, too. But the purpose is to subvert attitude, beliefs and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness."

During these last two years of unremitting political crap, we all have needed Hemingway’s built-in, shockproof, industrial-strength crap detector.

PM Gillard admonished journalists with: ‘Don’t write crap’, but they carried on doing so nevertheless. We have had crap dealt out about climate change, the economy, the competence of the Government, the integrity of our PM, and as recently as last week we had Justice Rares deliver a harsh judgement about the attempt of James Ashby and his co-conspirators to bring a sexual harassment case against the Speaker of the House with the intent of bringing him down and the Government with him. Although he didn’t use the word, Rares could have aptly described the Ashby case as ‘crap’. So, he threw it out, presumably onto the growing political ‘crap heap’. Then last week we had Tony Abbott heap more crap on the crap heap as he used weasel words to camouflage his involvement, and that of Mal Brough. He’s still at it, walking away from questions about Brough as recently as yesterday at the presser he called to gloat over the now-doubtful budget surplus.

The lesson for schools is that as the crap mushrooms, we need urgently to help our young to learn how to analyze, integrate, and synthesize information, concepts, and understandings into a meaningful whole, all the time looking for and detecting crap with their inbuilt crap detector, and consigning it to a place where it can do no harm. The health of our democracy depends on it.

What do you think?

Focus on political ideology: Joseph E Stiglitz

This is the second in the end-of-year series on The Political Sword on political ideology. It is based on a Stiglitz’s book: The Price of Inequality

Stiglitz’ book was published in mid 2012 in New York by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., and in London by Allen Lane, part of the Penguin Group.

Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate in economics, is currently a professor at Columbia University in the Department of Economics and the School of International and Public Affairs, and has taught at Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford. He was chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, and was Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank. He has pioneered theories in the fields of economic information, taxation, development, trade, and technical change.

The summary that follows is provided by Project Syndicate, an international not-for-profit newspaper syndicate and association of newspapers that distributes commentaries and analysis.

”America likes to think of itself as a land of opportunity, and others view it in much the same light. But, while we can all think of examples of Americans who rose to the top on their own, what really matters are the statistics: to what extent do an individual’s life chances depend on the income and education of his or her parents?

“Nowadays, these numbers show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe – or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data.

“This is one of the reasons that America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries – and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the “recovery” of 2009-2010, the top 1% of US income earners captured 93% of the income growth. Other inequality indicators – like wealth, health, and life expectancy – are as bad or even worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.

“It would be one thing if the high incomes of those at the top were the result of greater contributions to society, but the Great Recession showed otherwise: even bankers who had led the global economy, as well as their own firms, to the brink of ruin, received outsize bonuses.

“A closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking: some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are CEOs who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from government munificence – either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).

“Likewise, part of the wealth of those in finance comes from exploiting the poor, through predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices. Those at the top, in such cases, are enriched at the direct expense of those at the bottom.

“It might not be so bad if there were even a grain of truth to trickle-down economics – the quaint notion that everyone benefits from enriching those at the top. But most Americans today are worse off – with lower real (inflation-adjusted) incomes – than they were in 1997, a decade and a half ago. All of the benefits of growth have gone to the top.

“Defenders of America’s inequality argue that the poor and those in the middle shouldn’t complain. While they may be getting a smaller share of the pie than they did in the past, the pie is growing so much, thanks to the contributions of the rich and superrich, that the size of their slice is actually larger. The evidence, again, flatly contradicts this. Indeed, America grew far faster in the decades after World War II, when it was growing together, than it has since 1980, when it began growing apart.

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise, once one understands the sources of inequality. Rent-seeking distorts the economy. Market forces, of course, play a role, too, but markets are shaped by politics; and, in America, with its quasi-corrupt system of campaign finance and its revolving doors between government and industry, politics is shaped by money.

“For example, a bankruptcy law that privileges derivatives over all else, but does not allow the discharge of student debt, no matter how inadequate the education provided, enriches bankers and impoverishes many at the bottom. In a country where money trumps democracy, such legislation has become predictably frequent.

“But growing inequality is not inevitable. There are market economies that are doing better, both in terms of both GDP growth and rising living standards for most citizens. Some are even reducing inequalities.

“America is paying a high price for continuing in the opposite direction. Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that its most valuable asset – its people – is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and technology, impeding the engines of growth.

“The Great Recession has exacerbated inequality, with cutbacks in basic social expenditures and with high unemployment putting downward pressure on wages. Moreover, the United Nations Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, investigating the causes of the Great Recession, and the International Monetary Fund have both warned that inequality leads to economic instability.

“But, most importantly, America’s inequality is undermining its values and identity. With inequality reaching such extremes, it is not surprising that its effects are manifest in every public decision, from the conduct of monetary policy to budgetary allocations. America has become a country not “with justice for all,” but rather with favouritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it – so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.

“America can no longer regard itself as the land of opportunity that it once was. But it does not have to be this way: it is not too late for the American dream to be restored.”

Stiglitz’s book is in harmony with the last piece: The ideology of politics: Ross Gittins in which Gittins comments on Professor Jeffrey Sachs’ book: The Price of Civilisation.

Using the US as the context, Stiglitz talk of matters we have discussed here before: the inequality that gives the top earners almost all of the income growth thereby widening the gap between the very rich and the rest, the growing role of rent seekers, the fallacy of ‘trickle down economics’. Stiglitz examines particularly the social effects of inequality – slowing growth, rising unemployment, downward pressure on wages, underinvestment in infrastructure, education and technology, adverse effects on the health of the middle and lower classes, and social discord.

It’s now over to you, readers of The Political Sword.

What do you think?

Focus on political ideology: Ross Gittins

This is the first of a series that will be posted periodically over the end-of-year break on The Political Sword. It is designed to give you an opportunity to comment on the important ideological and philosophical issues that influence contemporary politics.

The centerpiece of this first post is a lucidly written and challenging opinion piece by Ross Gittins, the Sydney Morning Herald's Economics Editor, which appeared in the National Times on 5 December 2012. It is titled: A warning as market pipes tune in America.

His piece is prefaced by a video where he reviews a book: The Price of Civilisation. He begins: “Libertarianism is the notion that the only ethical value that matters is liberty, but one of America’s leading economists, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, isn’t having a bar of it in his latest book, The Price of Civilisation.

You will get the gist of Gittins’ article if you first view the video. Click this link and play the video.

The entire article, as it appears in the National Times, is in italics below:

"Just as it's taking the world a lot longer to recover from the global financial crisis than we initially expected, so it's taking a lot longer than we might have expected for voters and their governments to learn the lessons and make the changes needed to ensure such devastation doesn't recur. But the penny has dropped for some.

Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University, is one of the biggest-name economists in the world. Yet in his book, The Price of Civilisation: Economics and Ethics after the Fall, he admits America's greatest problem is moral, not economic. Actually, he says that at the root of America's economic crisis lies a moral crisis. He puts into words thoughts most of us have hardly dared to think.

Sachs says America's weaknesses are warning signs for the rest of the world. ''The society that led the world in financial liberalisation, round-the-clock media saturation, television-based election campaigns and mass consumerism is now revealing the downside of a society that has let market institutions run wild over politics and public values,'' he says.

His book ''tracks the many ills that now weigh on the American psyche and the American financial system: an economy of hype, debt and waste that has achieved economic growth and high incomes at the cost of extreme income inequality, declining trust among members of the society and the public's devastating loss of confidence in the national government as an instrument of public well-being''.

Even if the American economy is on the skids, he says, the hyper-commercialism invented in America is on the international rise. So, too, are the attendant ills: inequality, corruption, corporate power, environmental threats and psychological destabilisation.

''A society of markets, laws and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty and compassion toward the rest of society and towards the world. America has developed the world's most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way.

''Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.''

America's crisis developed gradually over several decades, he argues. It's the culmination of an era - the baby-boomer era - rather than of particular policies or presidents. It is a bipartisan affair: both Democrats and Republicans have played their part.

''On many days it seems that the only difference between the Republicans and Democrats is that Big Oil owns the Republicans while Wall Street owns the Democrats.''

Too many of America's elites - the super rich, the chief executives and many academics - have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned, he says.

We need to reconceive the idea of a good society. ''Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilisation through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society's needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together.''

The American people are generally broadminded, moderate and generous, he says. But these are not the images of Americans we see on television or the adjectives that come to mind when we think of America's rich and powerful elite.

America's political institutions have broken down, so that the broad public no longer holds these elites to account. And the breakdown of politics also implicates the public. ''American society is too deeply distracted by our media-drenched consumerism to maintain habits of effective citizenship.''

Sachs says a healthy economy is a mixed economy, in which government and the marketplace play their roles. Yet the federal government has neglected its role for three decades, turning the levers of power over to the corporate lobbies.

The resulting ''corporatocracy'' involves a feedback loop. ''Corporate wealth translates into political power through campaign financing, corporate lobbying and the revolving door of jobs between government and industry; and political power translates into further wealth through tax cuts, deregulation and sweetheart contracts between government and industry. Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth.''

How have American voters allowed their democracy to be hijacked? ''Most voters are poorly informed and many are easily swayed by the intense corporate propaganda thrown their way in the few months leading to the elections.

''We have therefore been stuck in a low-level political trap: cynicism breeds public disengagement from politics; the public disengagement from politics opens the floodgates of corporate abuse; and corporate abuse deepens the cynicism.''

Sachs says globalisation and the rise of Asia risks the depletion of vital commodities such as fresh water and fossil fuels, and long-term damage to the earth's ecosystems.

''For a long time, economists ignored the problems of finite natural resources and fragile ecosystems,'' he writes. ''This is no longer possible. The world economy is pressing hard against various environmental limits, and there is still much more economic growth - and therefore environmental destruction and depletion - in the development pipeline.''

Two main obstacles to getting the global economy on an ecologically sustainable trajectory exist, he says. The first is that our ability to deploy more sustainable technologies, such as solar power, needs large-scale research and development.

The second is the need to overcome the power of corporate lobbies in opposing regulations and incentives that will steer markets towards sustainable solutions. ''So far, the corporate lobbies of the polluting industries have blocked such measures.''

In Australia, of course, the public interest has so far triumphed over corporate resistance. But the survival of both the carbon tax and the mining tax remains under threat."

We acknowledge our indebtedness for this piece to Ross Gittins, one of the finest writers in the mainstream media.  You might find the comments that follow his article informative.  They reveal starkly the variety of attitudes, and the wide variation in philosophy of his readers.

If you found Gittins’ article interesting you may also enjoy reading the rather dire account of the economy in the US: Debtpocalypse, Austerity and the Hollowing Out of America - Modern US history and the archeology of decline by Steve Fraser published in Common Dreams – Building Progressive Community.

It is now over to you, the users of The Political Sword, to express your views.

What do you think?

The media still has questions to answer

“Self congratulatory lemmings” was the phrase used by Jon Faine on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne this week to describe the media, and in particular the Canberra Press Gallery. The context was the so-called ‘AWU slush fund scandal’. He was referring to the incessant, yet fruitless assault on the Prime Minister over her time as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon twenty years ago.

Faine repeated what he has been saying for ages: that despite this matter having been trawled over time and again over several years, despite two hour-long press conferences where the Press Gallery was invited to ask any and every question about this matter, despite repeated questioning all this week by Julie Bishop in the House, nothing, repeat nothing, has ever been unearthed to implicate Julia Gillard in any wrong-doing.  Even a fifteen minute opportunity yesterday in the House for Tony Abbott to put his case of criminal behaviour by the PM yielded nothing, nothing at all. Yet the cry: ‘She still has questions to answer’ has echoed around the Gallery and appeared in print and on air, and it still does. No matter how many answers she gives to no matter how many questions, there are always more. No allegations have ever been made, but there are still ‘questions to answer’. 

In my view it is the mainstream media and especially the Canberra Press Gallery that has questions to answer, not Julia Gillard.

As Faine used the word ‘groupthink’ to describe journalists’ behaviour, I was reminded of the first blog piece I wrote four years ago, in June 2008, on Possum Comitatus’ Possum Box: Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?

In that piece, having defined groupthink, and having given a number of examples, I concluded: ”The result is media of indifferent quality, which generally follows the leader in promulgating facts that are often inaccurate or distorted, embraces fashionable concepts and buzz words, and indulges in ‘copy-cat’ commentary that does little to inform or enlighten. Perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this lamentable state of affairs is that so many of the voting public let most media offerings pass harmlessly over their heads.

“Many in the media abuse the power inherent in the journalistic pen. Where has objective, informed, balanced reporting and commenting gone? Often the two are confused as journalists seek to promulgate their views rather than the facts. It’s a pity that the small coterie of good quality journalists is diluted by such a motley collection of writers of indifferent, and in many instances, low standard. Groupthink seems to be the genesis of much of the pathology they exhibit.”

Has anything changed over these last four years? In my view the answer is ‘Yes’. The mainstream media has deteriorated, and continues to decline. Faine says the MSM has reached its lowest point.

What is the evidence for this assertion? Think back. Can you recall a time when the media has made such a meal out of any story, as it has of the S&G ‘scandal’? Can you remember any catchphrase being repeated so often by so many on such a plethora of platforms: newsprint, radio, TV, blogs? ‘PM Gillard still has questions to answer’ has been everywhere.

So here’s the first question the media has to answer:

What is the genesis of this obsessive pursuit of a matter twenty years old, which has been mulled over hundreds of times, over many years, without uncovering a ‘smoking gun’ to condemn Julia Gillard?

Let me hazard an opinion.

We all know that the business model of many of the traditional outlets is now obsolete. The rivers of gold from advertising have slowed to a trickle, and circulation revenue is down. Digital media are replacing print, but making it profitable has been difficult. Media houses have sacked journalists, others have left, and those remaining feel apprehensive, insecure, and overworked as they now have to prepare material for several platforms, and in less time.

As the thrust of journalism has progressively morphed from reporting into entertainment and titillation, as the attention span of consumers has shrunk to tiny sound bites or strident headlines, the quality of their work has deteriorated, has become more reliant on press releases, has become degraded into ‘he said, she said’ accounts of events, and more and more susceptible to groupthink as journalists talk with colleagues in the next office, chatter to each other and their ‘sources’ in the corridors of power and at their favourite watering holes. This week on the Jon Faine radio show, News Limited CEO Kim Williams denied that there was any groupthink in his organization!

I am not alone in my views. Mike Seccombe, in a comprehensive appraisal of the media in The Global Mail: Truth Tally – What’s Wrong With Australian Political Debate quotes Malcolm Turnbull. ”He [Turnbull] made particular reference to the media, saying that as news organizations came under greater cost pressures, good reporting which held governments and oppositions to account "was diminishing".
 "Instead, he said, newspapers and other media were resorting more to commentary and opinion and more to analysis of the effectiveness of political spin than to analysis of the substantive issues.”

We ought not be surprised then that the same boring, unoriginal phrases creep into their writings, the same people are interviewed by journalists and the same ‘insiders’ talk to each other on radio and TV shows. Boot leather remains pristine as investigative journalism morphs into superficial, insubstantial accounts of events, light on facts but heavy on opinion. Following Rupert Murdoch’s dictum that ‘opinion is news’, journalists now believe they can avoid the arduous task of fact gathering and fact checking, and substitute for them their own opinion. But on what is their opinion based?

We have seen the result of this approach. The Canberra Press Gallery has expressed its learned opinion only to be found to be wrong again and again.

We have had countless predictions of the fall of Julia Gillard as leader, if not by Easter, by mid-year, by year-end, and although we are in her third year, she is still leader and going from strength to strength. They have told us this ‘hung’ minority parliament cannot possibly work, that it is unmanageable; indeed it is ‘toxic’. Yet 449 pieces of legislation have already been passed in this term, some of them historic reforms such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, plans for more major reforms are in train this very week such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reform, and the economy is in great shape. How often can journalists be wrong before the electorate ignores them?

They were left standing mouths open wide when Kevin Rudd was replaced, and caught again when PM Gillard appeared with Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. And they got it completely wrong when they dismissed the PM’s ‘misogyny’ speech as inconsequential.

Indeed, I believe it is this stark exposure of their incompetence that has alienated many of them. They have resented looking stupid, they have been angered by PM Gillard’s unwillingness to kowtow to them and her readiness to pull them into line. ‘Don’t write crap’ upset them. Still seething, they are rude in press conferences, as was Sid Maher this week. Pulled into line, his antagonism will rise. The ‘experts’, the ‘insiders’, the ‘pontiffs’ have been exposed as pseudo emperors with no clothes. And they are angry, and express that anger in their vitriolic columns.

Add institutional antagonism to this personal resentment, and you have a formula for vituperative writing that seeks to demean the PM no matter what she does, that seeks to diminish whatever the Government achieves. We all know, and hear it from honest journalists, that News Limited has the institutional objective of bringing the Labor Government down, destroying the Greens at the ballot box, and installing an Abbott Government. Little attempt is made to disguise this. We know that Rupert Murdoch has this intent, as do the editors of his tabloids and broadsheets.

Recently, Fairfax has joined in the ‘let’s get Gillard’ campaign, and with some gusto by Peter Hartcher and Michelle Grattan, whose dislike of PM Gillard is palpable. Even the previously balanced AFR, now with ex-News Limited man Michael Stutchbury as its editor, has swung anti-Government, and some of its more balanced authors with it.

Returning to Seccombe’s article, he further quotes Turnbull: “…there is more media "narrowcasting" – strident partisanship aimed at like-minded consumers.
 "Fox News in the United States is an example of how commercially successful that strategy can be as are some of the shock jocks in Australia," he said. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent's policy does not respect 'Struggle Street'; it treats its residents with contempt. It is the opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal," said Turnbull.
 "This was extraordinary stuff, coming from a Liberal MP. He [Turnbull] was bagging the Murdoch media model – only Fox by name, but its Australian operation by implication – when he talked about that the "hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan" coverage of climate change. The News Ltd papers, and particularly The Australian, have led the climate-change deniers.”

There can be no doubt News Limited is partisan; it misrepresents facts that do not fit its case, lies when it suits it, and acts as a collaborative mouthpiece for the Coalition. Whilst it can do as it pleases, what it does do does not make a quality bipartisan balanced news outlet.

We know too that online media, the Internet, the Fifth Estate, and social media have made Old Media less relevant. News is available online before it can reach the newsstands. No longer is the Fourth Estate a repository of facts, figures, reasoned analysis and balanced opinion, as it once was. Opinion is available from a host of well-informed and articulate commentators in the Fifth Estate, who have access to as much information as journalists do, and who analyse it in a better-balanced way than most Fourth Estate journalists. We read their opinions every day, while eschewing the Fourth Estate, much of it locked behind pay walls, and not worth paying for.

Because Old Media cannot compete with the immediacy of online news, it seems to have taken on another role – advocacy. Look for example at The Australian. The front pages are now full of the S&G matter, every day, still. The paper is advocating the pursuit of our PM. There was nothing on its front page about the recent alarming reports on global warming which threatens our planet, just hundreds of column inches on S&G. Indeed the only major paper that reported on its front page the alarming global warming story out of the Doha talks was The Age. What has become of a media that gives precedence to a long-running non-story that it deems a ‘scandal’, but scarcely bothers to highlight a story about dangerous threats to our planet and everything on it?

So here is the next question the media has to answer.

What is the purpose of bringing down our PM and our elected Government?

Here again I offer an opinion. For News Limited there seems to be a commercial reason. We know Murdoch prefers conservative governments, as he believes they provide a more congenial environment for his empire and its expansion. That has come out starkly in the Leveson Inquiry. Ideologically too, Murdoch prefers conservative governments. He was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, and although he supported Tony Blair, we now know that came at a price to Blair and his Labor Government. Here, Tony Abbott is his man. ‘I hope he liked me’ said Abbott after his only meeting with Murdoch.

There is another reason Murdoch wants Labor gone – the threat of a body being established to regulate the media, a move vehemently opposed by Murdoch’s man here, Kim Williams.

Ben Eltham has views on the media’s role in the S&G saga. He wrote a comprehensive piece this week on the facts of the matter: The AWU Scandal Unpacked. If you wish to read a summary, you won’t find one better than his.

But this piece is not about this matter; instead it is used as background to illustrate the current state of the media and the questions it still has to answer.

Eltham wrote another piece on the same day: Gillard Puts The Press To Shame. After giving a thorough analysis that will repay your attention, he concludes: “Throughout the coverage of this affair, the onus of proof has consistently been placed on the Prime Minister by the media. The common line has been that she has "questions to answer". That argument is dead in the water, given that the Prime Minister has twice answered all the questions the media has put, at considerable length.

“In fact, the onus of proof in investigative reporting should run the other way. The role of journalists is not simply to ask questions. It is to uncover evidence and to substantiate and corroborate serious allegations. The argument that the Prime Minister owes the public an explanation of her actions 17 years ago is valid. But she has provided an explanation, many times.

“Perhaps its time we asked some questions of journalists like Hedley Thomas and Mark Baker.”

“Some questions that come to my mind are:

When does an investigation become a giant fishing expedition?

What responsibilities do journalists have to back up their claims? 

And if you have evidence to support your leading questions, why won’t you release it?

Most importantly, in a week in which legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was introduced to Parliament, we need to ask:

Why is this even news?

While these questions arise out of the S&G matter, they are generic. They could, and should be asked of journalists no matter what they are reporting.

Yes, journalists are the ones who have questions to answer. I have suggested some specific ones about the S&G matter, and some generic ones arising out of it.

Writing in The Conservation in AWU ‘scandal’ says more about the media’s ethics than the PM’s, Janine Little says: ”Mainstream campaign journalism being what it is, competing for its shrinking share of a public attention span focused largely on social media, journalists haven’t let a lack of evidence stop their pursuit of the prime minister. If mainstream media organizations are attempting to compete with the reach and timbre of social media at the expense of a sustained respect for evidence and fact-based reporting, then it’s journalists who practice such things who stand to lose most.

“Journalism based on solid research and verified source material has uncovered serious wrongdoing not so long ago in Australia’s past, and for the benefit of a public’s right to know what matters. When there’s hardly anyone willing to question why an array of facts pointing away from the prime minister somehow keeps media organisations hot on her trail, it becomes solely a question of ethics answerable by journalists rather than Julia Gillard.”

For the reasons suggested in this piece, the standard of journalism in the Fourth Estate has deteriorated since I first wrote about it over four years ago, and it continues to slide. The perversion of journalism brought about by the pursuit of partisan ideological objectives, aggravated by commercial and professional stresses within the Fourth Estate, accentuated by the loss of its status, prestige, and previously unchallenged authority, continues relentlessly.

It is depressing to see what was once a lofty and respected professional contribution to our society now so degenerate, ineffectual and disrespected.

This piece asserts that it is journalists and indeed the entire Fourth Estate that has questions to answer, questions about its intent, its behaviour, its ethics, its performance, and the quality of its offerings. Unless the Fourth Estate has the courage to answer these questions, unless it is willing to address its problems, it will sink into obscurity, replaced by a plethora of other providers of news, analysis and opinion, many in the Fifth Estate.

After seeing the media reaction to how Julia Gillard’s outmanoeuvered and humiliated Tony Abbott in the last QT for the year, I have little hope the Fourth Estate has learned anything at all. The commentators continue to insist that ‘She still has questions to answer’.

They remain self congratulatory lemmings.

What do you think?

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So the globe is warming after all

Climate skeptics and deniers should read no further. The factual information below will cause them to have acute cognitive dissonance as the facts and figures clash with their entrenched beliefs and fantasies.

I suppose it is coincidental, but recently there has been a spate of reports on the state of the globe, and all point in the one direction, the globe is warming, and the only plausible explanation is the man-made accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Let’s look first at the recent World Bank-commissioned report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided (pdf) (eBook version), carried out by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, on behalf of the Bank.

I will quote extensively from an article published on November 18 this year by the Bank: Climate Change Report Warns of Dramatically Warmer World This Century, which begins with these highlights:

“The New World Bank-commissioned report warns the world is on track to a ‘4°C world’ marked by extreme heat waves and life-threatening sea level rise.

“Adverse effects of global warming are “tilted against many of the world's poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and goals.

“In response, the Bank is contemplating increased support for adaptation, mitigation, inclusive green growth, and climate-smart development.”

Drawing attention to this summer’s satellite image of the melting Greenland ice sheet, the report suggests that “…time may be running out to temper the rising risks of climate change”, and the Bank “…warns we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

The Bank adds that because the effects of a warming climate are “…tilted against many of the world's poorest regions”, they are “…likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals”. The report urges "…further mitigation action as the best insurance against an uncertain future."

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group insists: "A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2°C. Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest."

The World Bank article continues: “The report, reviewed by some of the world’s top scientists, is being released ahead of the next comprehensive studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013/14, and follows the Bank’s own Strategic Framework for Development and Climate Change in 2008 and the World Development Report on climate change in 2010. ‘Turn Down the Heat’ combines a synthesis of recent scientific literature with new analysis of likely impacts and risks, focusing on developing countries. It chronicles already observed climate change and impacts, such as heat waves and other extreme events, and offers projections for the 21st century for droughts, heat waves, sea level rise, food, water, ecosystems and human health.

“The report says today’s climate could warm from the current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emissions-reduction pledges.

"This report reinforces the reality that today’s climate volatility affects everything we do," said Rachel Kyte, the Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development. "We will redouble our efforts to build adaptive capacity and resilience, as well as find solutions to the climate challenge."

“The World Bank doubled lending for climate change adaptation last year and plans to step up efforts to support countries’ initiatives to mitigate carbon emissions and promote inclusive green growth and climate-smart development. Among other measures, the Bank administers the $7.2 billion Climate Investment Funds now operating in 48 countries and leveraging an additional $43 billion in clean investment and climate resilience.”

Let’s look at some details:

Rising Sea Levels
“The report says sea levels have been rising faster in the last two decades than previously, and this rise is being seen in many tropical regions of the world. This phenomenon is partly due to melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; the rapid growth in melt area observed since the 1970s in Greenland’s ice sheet is a clear illustration of its increasing vulnerability. Arctic sea ice also reached a record minimum in September 2012. There are indications that the greatest melt extent in the past 225 years has occurred in the last decade. It’s early yet but clearly some of the small island states and coastal communities are beginning to take a hard look at their options. The need to adapt to climate change will increase as global population reaches 9 billion in 2050.”

Ocean Acidification
“Coral reefs are acutely sensitive to changes in water temperature and acidity levels. The report warns that by the time the warming levels reach 1.4° C in 2030s, coral reefs may stop growing. This would be a result of oceans becoming more acidic as a result of higher CO2 concentrations. And with 2.4° C, coral reefs in several areas may actually start to dissolve. This is likely to have profound consequences for people who depend on them for food, income, tourism and shoreline protection.”

Heat Extremes
“A 4°C warmer world would also suffer more extreme heat waves, and these events will not be evenly distributed across the world, according to the report.

“Sub-tropical Mediterranean, northern Africa, the Middle East, and the contiguous United States are likely to see monthly summer temperatures rise by more than 6°C. Temperatures of the warmest July between 2080-2100 in the Mediterranean are expected to approach 35°C – about 9°C warmer than the warmest July estimated for the present day. The warmest July month in the Sahara and the Middle East will see temperatures as high as 45°C, or 6-7°C above the warmest July simulated for the present day.”

Lower agricultural yields
”Hotter weather could in turn lower crop yields in a 4°C world, raising concerns about future food security. Field experiments have shown that crops are highly sensitive to temperatures above certain thresholds. One study cited in the report found that each “growing degree day” spent at a temperature of 30 degrees decreases yields by 1% under drought-free rain-fed conditions.

“The report also says drought-affected areas would increase from 15.4% of global cropland today, to around 44% by 2100. The most severely affected regions in the next 30 to 90 years will likely be in southern Africa, the United States, southern Europe and Southeast Asia, says the report. In Africa, the report predicts 35% of cropland will become unsuitable for cultivation in a 5°C world.”

Risks to Human Support Systems
”The report identifies severe risks related to adverse impacts on water availability, particularly in northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. River basins like the Ganges and the Nile are particularly vulnerable. In Amazonia, forest fires could as much double by 2050. The world could lose several habitats and species with a 4°C warming.”

Non-linear impacts
”As global warming approaches and exceeds 2°C, there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st-century global warming and impact entire continents.

“The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen".

And while the globe is burning, some politicians fiddle, filled with doubt as they are by the skeptics and deniers. It is criminal negligence on a monumental scale.

In case anyone thinks that sitting here down under we might be spared these terrifying consequences of global warming, let’s turn to the evidence, that is verifiable facts and figures presented on the 15 November edition of the ABC’s Catalyst, where Dr Jonica Newby interviewed several climate scientists. If you missed this informative program, you may wish to view it here.

Dr Kenneth Green says: ”In 60 years, we've lost a third of our total snow cover. But there is some rough comfort for my skiing aspirations. And that is that the beginning of the season hasn't really changed.

”So, basically, since 1954, snow depth in July is much the same. When you reach September, it starts to drop off. So that by October it's noticeably less. Essentially, spring is coming earlier.

“It's even clearer when you look at the records for the thaw, now two weeks earlier than in the '60s. And the snowline appears to have lately moved up from 1,500m to 1,600m.

“So we're looking at minimum temperatures. And, Karl, basically, this is how cold it gets at night.”

Dr Karl Braganza:
”That's correct, Jonica. If we start at the Snowy here, we've warmed by about 1.1 degrees since a century ago. And that's similar to Perth, Sydney. If we're looking over here at Cairns, it's almost 2 degrees since 1910.

”So that's night-time minimums, but I bet what most of you are more interested in is what's happened to daytime maximums. And, for that... I'm heading here.”

”You can see here - Sydney through to Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart, they've warmed up by about 0.7 of a degree. And in some capitals a lot less. Adelaide - 0.3. But if you go over to the west - Perth - and into the centre - Alice Springs - you've got 1.1 to almost 2 degrees of warming.
 Overall, averaging maximums and minimums, our nation's core temperature has gone up 0.9 of a degree.”

”Alright, so this next diagnostic is... a measure of extremes.”

”It is. And what we've seen is more and more stations are breaking extreme heat in the last 100 years, and less are breaking extreme cold.
 In fact, in the last ten years, the number of stations breaking extreme heat records has doubled those breaking extreme cold. So, frosty nights are becoming less common, but extreme heat days are becoming more common.”

Katherine Brown (of Brown Brothers vineyards):
”Talking to our scientists, winemakers and viticulturists, they really pretty much turned to the board and said, 'We have to find this cooler-climate property because within decades we could see a 2-degrees temperature rise in our current vineyards in Victoria.' So, they pretty much told us that if we continued to want to do what we do best, make quality wine, we had to come south.”

”So the chance of one month being above-average temperature, is one in two. The chance of the next month also being above-average temperature, is one in four. The chance of the next month also being above-average temperature, is one in eight.”

So what do you think are the chances of having 330 months in a row of above-average temperatures? Because, since February 1985, we have had... 330 months in a row of above-average (global) temperatures.”

Dr Mark Howden:
 ”It's really extraordinary. If it was just by random chance alone, then there's only a 1 in 100,000 chance that that would have happened in the absence of human influence.”

”It's exciting times for Tasmanian fishermen. With so many new fish arriving, they've teamed up with scientists to plot them. They've seen leather jacks, green turtles, dusky morwong...”

Mark Nikolai: 
”It's actually really good news for Tasmanian fishermen, because all the New South Wales fish are moving south into our waters.
 “All in all, scientists have confirmed 45 new species have, like Brown Brothers, shipped on down to Tassie.”

 ”Well, obviously, if fish from the big island are moving down, the water here must have got warmer.”

“Alright, Dr Karl. National round-up time again. 100-year health check. Circulation.”

 ”What we're going to look at now, Jonica, is the sea-surface temperatures around Australia. And what we've seen is about a degree of warming over the last century. But you can see over the East Coast we have more warming than we do over the West Coast. There's some hot spots as well. And that's off the coast of Victoria and Tasmania. Sea temperatures here off Tasmania have risen an astounding 2.28 degrees. That's about four times the global ocean average.”

”When the original records were rediscovered just a decade ago, Dr John Hunter was able to work out what's happened.”

Dr John Hunter:
 ”OK, the total sea-level rise since 1841 is about 17 centimetres. So, if you raise sea level by just 10 centimetres...
you find you get a tripling of the number of flooding events. 
And if you raise it by another 10 centimetres, it goes up by another factor of three, so that's a total of nine.”

”So... so we've got nine times, effectively, the number of flooding events for structures at sea level than we did 100 years ago?”

 ”So what we're looking at here is basically from the satellite record from 1993. And we can see sea levels have risen everywhere.”

Newby: ”So, now, the last two years' rainfall have been quite extraordinary, haven't they?”

Braganza: ”They have. They've been record-breaking. So, over the last 24-month period, the two years, we've seen more rainfall in Australia for a 24-month period than we've ever seen in the historical record.”

 ”And tell me - does this have something to do with the fact that the ocean and the air temperatures are higher?”

 ”Normally, when you get a La Nina event you'll get almost record rainfall in Australia. This time, what we saw was record sea-surface temperatures around Australia. And so we've got basically a perfect storm. We've got a La Nina event. We've got global warming going on in the oceans around Australia. And then we've got this record rainfall as well.”

”Essentially, what the records show is that global warming isn't something that's coming - it's here in our backyards already. It's pointless now to ask, 'Is this climate change or natural variability?' What we see is one acting on top of the other.”

Braganza: ”So, every parcel of air, every ocean current, every weather system is now about a degree warmer. And when you go through and do the physics, that's actually a hell of a lot of energy added to the climate system in general.”

”You know, of all the things I learned on this investigation, it was that comment from Karl that really struck me. It was like, 'Aha! I finally get it.' There's one degree of extra heat across the whole planet. That's just a lot of new energy in our weather system. What happens when you add another degree? And another?”

Exactly, what happens? It gets worse and worse, until we get to the tipping point, where no matter what we do, the destructive process continues beyond the control of human beings.

Older people, those who make decisions about what to do about climate change, even if they acknowledge the disaster that looms, see it as far away and slow moving, something they can be relaxed about, something they can take action about when the time comes. What the World Bank Report tells us is that the time to act is NOW. If we don’t, our children and theirs will suffer the terrible consequences.

If you need any more convincing, read what Graham Readfearn had to say in Independent Australia in a piece titled: The Australian skews climate science… again that starts with how once more The Australian has misrepresented climate change science. The YouTube video that accompanies the piece will repay your attention. Make sure too that you scroll to the end where you will see a very revealing dynamic graph that shows how skeptics segment time periods in an attempt to show that the globe is not warming, in fact might be sometimes cooling, whereas if you look at the whole 40-year period the graph shows – 1970-2012, and insert a trend line (in red) the warming trend stands out starkly.

Writing in New Matilda in Our Role In The Climate Deadlock, Ben Eltham writes: ”The problem posed by climate change is difficult to overstate. It is global. It is endemic. It is devilishly difficult to address. But address it we must, or our children and grandchildren will inhabit a planet almost unimaginably different from our own: a world of dangerously destabilised climates, devastating natural disasters, flooded cities and dead coral reefs. A world most likely riven by conflict and war. A world in which the global economy struggles against the huge cost of dealing with a preventable global disaster that our generation did little to prevent.”

The ramifications of climate change go way beyond variations in climate. In an article by Tristan Edis in Climate Spectator, John Hewson: Climate change the next sub-prime meltdown he writes of his interview with Hewson, who has now taken up the Chair of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, an initiative aimed at getting retirement and superannuation funds to pay more heed to the risks of climate change and the need to invest more money in companies that reduce carbon emissions. Hewson ”equates climate change as equivalent in its likely impacts on financial markets to that of the sub-prime loan crisis that led to the GFC. He also points out that governments across the globe are subsidizing carbon intensive industries, and board members can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the risks associated with investing in these industries.”

Again in Climate Spectator Julian Poulter writes in The climate for super fear: ”The largest pool of money in the world is held by the big pension and superannuation funds – called the ‘Asset Owners’. They have a fiduciary duty to us to invest wisely and the unique risk-return challenge of climate change and other ESG issues (Environment, Social, Governance) have prompted us in recent times to question whether they are carrying out their duties.

“The problem arises because we know that the Asset Owners give our money to fund managers who in turn invest in companies. And sages that we are, we have a sneaky suspicion that some of the investments aren’t sustainable and that in the context of climate change, we might wake up one day with the mixed news that the low carbon economy is fully underway but our retirement savings portfolios that are currently stuffed with high carbon assets are worth dramatically less than they were yesterday. And when this sudden low carbon tipping point occurs, causing inevitable portfolio destruction, it won’t be like the sub-prime crisis where the highly technical complexity of the issue engaged us all for months allowing everyone to avoid true scrutiny. No, this is climate change – it’s simple and we’ve been talking about it for years and trustees cannot now escape.”

In the face of all this evidence, in the face of all these warnings, how can anyone take a cavalier attitude to climate change, how can anyone ignore the reality of global warming so recklessly? The only explanation is that these people are the climate equivalent of the Obama ‘birthers’ and the Creationists who believe the planet is only 6000 years old, who cast aside evidence, ignore verifiable facts, so that their beliefs, their ‘faith’ can hold sway.

These people can never be convinced. But there must be some rational people out there who if they knew the facts would be so scared out of their wits for the welfare of their grandchildren that they would act, and would support any government that was acting decisively to mitigate the effects of climate change, even if the cost was high. The cost of not acting is much, much higher.

We must counter the deniers and skeptics. The survival of the human race, and indeed all living things, depends on it.

What do you think?

UPDATE 29 November 2012

Since writing this piece, two further reports on global warming have emerged that will repay your attention.

The first was: UN Report: Melting Permafrost Seen as New Peril in Global Warming that alerts us to the extreme danger of the release of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, from melting permafrost in the Arctic.

It began: ”Permafrost lands across Siberia and Alaska that contain vast stores of carbon are beginning to thaw, bringing with it the threat of a big increase in global warming by 2100, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.

“A thaw of the vast areas of permanently frozen ground in Russia, Canada, China and the United States also threatens local homes, roads, railways and oil pipelines, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) said in the report which was released at the U.N. climate talks being held this week and next in Qatar.

“Permafrost has begun to thaw,” Kevin Schaefer, lead author at the University of Colorado told a news conference in Doha.

“An accelerating melt would free vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which has been trapped in organic matter in the subsoil, often for thousands of years, the report said.

“Warming permafrost could release the equivalent of between 43 and 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by 2100. That would be up to 39 percent of annual emissions from human sources.

“Permafrost now contains 1,700 billion tons of carbon, or twice the amount now in the atmosphere, it said.

The second came out today from the Doha talks. It is reported in The New York Times in an article Global Warming & Climate Change (Doha Talks, 2012.UN Report: Melting Permafrost Seen as New Peril in Global Warming that begins:

”Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. Warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases — produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

“Global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery. The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.”

There is another version published in Salon: Area of Arctic sea ice larger than US melted this year U.N. weather agency released worrying report at Doha talks. It begins: ”An area of Arctic sea ice bigger than the United States melted this year, according the U.N. weather agency, which said the dramatic decline illustrates that climate change is happening “before our eyes.”

“In a report released at U.N. climate talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, the World Meteorological Organization said the Arctic ice melt was one of a myriad of extreme and record-breaking weather events to hit the planet in 2012. Droughts devastated nearly two-thirds of the United States as well western Russia and southern Europe. Floods swamped west Africa and heat waves left much of the Northern Hemisphere sweltering.

“But it was the ice melt that seemed to dominate the annual climate report, with the U.N. concluding ice cover had reached “a new record low” in the area around the North Pole and that the loss from March to September was a staggering 11.83 million square kilometers (4.57 million square miles) – an area bigger than the United States.

“The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said. “Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records.”

“The dire climate news – following on the heels of a report Tuesday that found melting permafrost could significantly amplify global warming – comes as delegates from nearly 200 countries struggled for a third day to lay the groundwork for a deal that would cut emissions in an attempt to ensure that temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over what they were in preindustrial times. Temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degrees C (1.4 degrees F), according to the latest report by the IPCC.”

These reports are scary.

Is there life after neoliberalism?

Yes there can be, says Hugh Stretton in his unfairly neglected book, Australia Fair (UNSW Press, 2005). I recently wrote about the general argument of this book in Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton. Here, I’m going to look at the specifics. But just to recap, Stretton argues that the neoliberal economic reforms of the past thirty years - floating the dollar, reducing tariffs, privatisation of public assets, lower taxation and spending cuts - have not brought the economic gains claimed for them. And he says they make for greater inequality. There have been a few improvements since he wrote in 2005, but not many. Mostly, things have got worse. He argues that a rich country like Australia should be able to assure a comfortable living for all citizens, and outlines a program involving both the public and the private sector to achieve this. Interested?

It’s not possible in a short review to do justice to all that Stretton is suggesting, or to include all the for and against arguments, reservations and complexities he mentions. For this, you must read the book. Furthermore, the policies that make up his program are inter-related, though I am mostly discussing them separately. His writes in a somewhat idiosyncratic style, and though he tries to keep his economic discussion simple, he loses me sometimes. Please forgive my oversimplification.

Stretton begins with ‘work’, because in his argument, full or fairly shared employment should be the main purpose of economic policy. He says that ‘every consideration of economy and humanity should drive us to see that there is paid work for everyone who wants it.’ But having given up most of their power to control the economy in favour of free market prescriptions, the only way governments can control inflation is by sustaining a significant level of unemployment. This is not only disastrous for those experiencing it; it results in less production, less demand and less investment. It also means a higher welfare bill – and/or the demonization of the unemployed, even though there are no jobs for them. Furthermore it often results in an increase in working hours for the employed, not always paid, which in turn affects their quality of life. Achieving full employment depends on other parts of his program, so what he is advocating is quite complicated. It seems to be a combination of stimulating demand, including increasing some benefits, increasing some public employment and stimulating some private employment, particularly in the housing industry.

Stretton has had a long involvement with housing policy. He considers housing a right in a rich society like Australia, alongside the right to education and health provision. (This is the sort of ‘stuff’ Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly think Americans who voted for Obama are so remiss as to expect.) Here Stretton addresses the situation where as part of the neoliberal agenda, the Commonwealth has cut funding to the States for new housing investment, and States have sold off most of their existing stock of public housing. This has been replaced by a first home buyer grant and rent allowances to poor tenants who have to compete in the private rental market. The result of simultaneously cutting the supply and subsidising the demand was to raise prices, as first home buyers bid against each other for a limited stock of moderately priced housing. Waiting lists for public housing are years long, and homelessness continues to grow. His solution, which rather elegantly pays for itself over time, is to give Commonwealth money to the States who contract private builders to build good quality but relatively modest housing, half of which is for sale or rent to working families who pay full cost or rent, and half as welfare housing. If full employment reduces the numbers on welfare and increases the number able to pay market rent, then this proportion can change. An increase in public housing acts as a dampener on the private market, and everyone gains except those who are hoping for a large capital gain when they sell mum and dad’s house at an inflated price.

The next issue is what Stretton calls ‘children’, but is actually parenting. He asks how we can best bring up children and respect parents’ right to choose either paid employment or staying home to care for their young children. As things stand, women usually end up doing the unpaid housework in addition to paid work, and children end up in less than satisfactory child care. He agrees that family friendly work places may help, but argues that in addition, there should be a parenting wage equivalent to the basic wage available on a means tested basis to one parent so they can stay at home if they wish. He knows the arguments about rorting the system, but considers that the social good of the proposal outweighs the possible abuses.

In both health and education, Stretton argues that the Howard government favoured private over public provision, and allowed the latter to decline. The Rudd/Gillard government has made a start on these issues. There are some moves to fix the buck-passing between Federal and State governments, and the private health insurance rebate has been cut for some rich families. Stretton would have abolished it altogether, and spent the money on the public health system. He would also likely approve the Gonksi proposals to fund the public education system properly.

More surprising to me, he is also highly critical of current superannuation provision; he quotes another historian’s conclusion that ‘the privatisers of superannuation have presided over the creation of a league of parasites on a scale not seen since the close of the eighteenth century.’ Transparency, which is the best we are offered in relation to fees and charges, is not enough; he argues there should be a public superannuation scheme alongside the private ones to add some genuine competition. I find this chapter technical and difficult, but his general drift is clear.

On the environment, he says: ‘The neoliberal change of direction to greater business freedom, less public production, less government and steeper inequality could have been designed specifically to disable our environmental management.’ He outlines a ‘green program’ which is perhaps now somewhat out-dated, but more important is his warning of the further damage to equality that climate change and greedy consumption of resources could bring.

I also find Stretton’s chapter on managing money difficult, and guess that he might well revise the details post the Global Financial Crisis – which can only have confirmed his general critique; ‘the real fruit,’ he says, ‘of 25 years of well-intended blundering should be to discredit the economic theories on which the mistaken expectations were based.’

He has had a stab at costing his program, and suggests ways of finding the money. And here, you have to decide on whether he is unreasonably optimistic, or whether, as he argues, Australians really might support a program that offered better services and a more equal society, even if it meant higher taxes and forgoing some luxury consumption. It would take ‘guts and ingenuity’ to try, and of course leadership – which has so far been leading us pretty much in the wrong direction.

I do not know of any other book that not only offers a reasoned critique of the impact of neoliberal economic policies in Australia in the last thirty years, but also offers an alternative set that could just work. If only there was someone who would try them.

Do Australian businessmen really believe Tony Abbott?

The attributes needed to run a successful business include intelligence, relevant knowledge, perspicacity, foresight, an eye for opportunity, willingness to take a calculated risk, skill in innovation, perseverance, and guts. Australian businessmen have these in spades. In simple terms, they are smart. Yet from what we as outsiders can see, they seem to be willing to accept the damaging rhetoric about our economy that Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Coalition front bench serve up day after day, with scarcely a murmur of concern, with almost no query about its validity, with no protest about its applicability, with no reservations about its effect on our economy and on the businesses they run.

As detailed in Abbott and Hockey are endangering Australian business, Abbott seems to be able to talk down the economy with impunity, thereby imperiling Australian businesses, without one word of condemnation from businessmen, without even a whisper of caution from them. Why is this so?

It is hard to believe that their silence is because they believe the rhetoric and accept the validity of the claims, as clearly many of them are preposterous and demonstrably untrue, the dire effects of the carbon tax being an obvious example. There must be other reasons.

It should not be surprising to anyone that businessmen who support entrepreneurship, free markets, competition, light regulation, minimal red and green tape, ‘flexible’ industrial policy, small government, and low taxes, find themselves attracted to Liberal policies that espouse these elements, although not necessarily following them in government. But that does not explain why they allow Abbott, Hockey, Robb and Cormann, the Coalition’s finance spokesmen, to continually talk down the economy, depress consumer confidence, imperil their businesses in the process, and put a brake on their own confidence, which is now lower, much lower than that of the consumers.

I shall attempt to tease out some explanations that I believe may be operating.

Many businessmen are Coalition supporters
One explanation is that some businessmen are such rusted on Coalition supporters, such entrenched Labor antagonists, that their support for the Coalition is unconditional. An example that springs to mind is Marcus Padley of the Marcus Today Newsletter, whose gloomy reports and prognostications about the stock market on ABC Radio every weekday are liberally sprinkled with overt anti-Government sentiment.

Unconditional support is the only explanation I can muster to explain how they can endorse the bumbling, foot-in-mouth, disingenuous Leader of the Coalition, with his overt ignorance of economics, his policy deficits, his shonky costings, and his policy ineptitude in the few areas he has already defined, his Direct Action Plan for climate change being a classic instance.

Some of course may not be unconditionally supportive, but because they accept the predictions of commentators on polls of voting intention that the Coalition is a shoo-in at the 2013 election, believe it is prudent for them to say nothing that would get them offside with what they expect to be the next government, from which they would be seeking favours, policies congenial to their business, and a leg-up when in strife. Perhaps they should pay more attention to polling trends that show a steady narrowing of the gap between the Coalition and Labor. Perhaps they should seriously contemplate the possibility of the Government being returned. If and when they do, they may be more inclined to call out Abbott and Co. when they make outrageous statements.

Some businessmen are rent-seekers
Another explanation of the reluctance of some businessmen to criticize the Coalition is that they are rent-seekers who want the Government to ease their burden as we saw when the carbon tax and the MMRT were introduced. Wanting the taxes removed or reduced, advocates were out in numbers with advertisements on TV and in the papers condemning these initiatives. Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council led the charge, soon joined by Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Clive Palmer, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and other employer organizations, all predicting economic disaster for businesses in the wake of the taxes. The carbon tax was about to disrupt, dislocate, and destroy businesses across the nation. As Tony Abbott opportunistically jumped in with a vow made in his own blood that these taxes would be repealed should they elect the Coalition to office, the rent-seekers rallied to his support.

No businessman wants to pay more tax, although some willingly do so for the common good. But there was little concern shown by the rent-seekers for the common good. They simply wanted the taxes removed, and spent millions in advertising to this end, and to hell with the rationale behind the taxes: to reduce pollution and spread the benefits of the mining boom. The spectre of the slaughter of the many geese that were laying the golden eggs was raised before the eyes of the electorate. Apprehension was engendered and scare campaigns mounted of massive job losses, exploding unemployment, and whole industries and towns wiped out.

The rent-seekers were smart. They knew full well that their campaign was disingenuous, but self-interest trumped the common good. Their colleagues in other areas of industry and commerce also knew that their campaign was self-serving, but did they raise a murmur? No. As Ross Gittins put it in his article: What business needs to learn about politics “…big business won't get far until it abandons its code of honour among thieves. That is, when one industry goes into battle with the government to resist a new impost or get itself a special concession, all the other industries keep mum, even though they know the first industry is merely on the make.” That’s exactly what they did – kept mum. Referring to the MMRT, Gittins continues: “Big business looked the other way as the three big miners connived with the opposition to destroy the Rudd government. Its reward was to have its precious cut in company tax snatched away.”

The colleagues of the rent-seekers could have voiced their concern about one section of the economy seeking benefits at the expense of other sections and the common good. But they chose silence, and thereby gave tacit support to their colleagues and to the party that was promising repeal, the Coalition.

So here is another explanation of why businessmen seem to swallow the ‘talking down the economy’ rhetoric of Abbott/Hockey/Robb/Cormann without a protest, without a murmur, without so much as asking them to tone down the talk that is damaging their businesses day after day, week after week. They are part of the industrial/commercial club that sticks together, that exhibits the age-old ‘honour among thieves’. Unfortunately, it is the public’s rights and benefits that are being thieved.

Indifferent relationships exist between business and government
Writing in The Australian, John Durie attributes the adverse attitude of some businessmen to PM Gillard and her Government as due to the business community coming to grips with a flat economy that is a tough grind. He noted that some businesspeople are still smarting from policy changes and feel they have borne the brunt of tax changes, including the latest plans to bring forward payments.

He went on to say: “Big business isn't perfect and government bitterness is understandable after watching the big miners in open revolt over the tax changes. The public attacks on the government have died down as the better operators understand no one likes being slagged in public, so if they want to deal with the government it is better to be more cordial. They just wish Gillard would respond on the same terms.”

Durie conceded that the Asian Century white paper was welcomed as it offered a potential bridge between the two sides after a rocky relationship, but at the Business Council's annual dinner last week, he asserts that: “Gillard missed a chance to engage with a broad cross-section of business, welfare groups and community leaders.” He reported that: “Businesspeople say that in individual meetings Gillard is completely different, engaged and interested, but before big business audiences she speaks right over the top of them, apparently to a different audience…Just as she did last year, she used the occasion to lecture the audience rather than engage a genuinely open audience.”

Whether or not Durie is correct in laying the blame for this dissonance at the PM’s feet, it does seem that some businesspeople do. This is yet another explanation for the willingness of some to hold their tongue when Abbott and Co. are on their negative rampages, talking down the economy at the expense of business. Their antagonism to PM Gillard at the one time encourages them to be critical of her and her Government, while inhibiting them from being critical of the Coalition.

So there it is. Although it is very doubtful that businessmen really believe the rationale of Tony Abbott and his finance colleagues when they talk down the economy, they exhibit a regrettable reticence to pounce on them. Yet when that happens, people defer discretionary spending on their homes and cars, cut back on luxury items, use their clothes a little longer, shop online, eat out less often, take their own lunch to work, defer that holiday, pay off the credit card, reduce the mortgage, and save for the rainy day. And as they do, business suffers. Retail sales decline, restaurants languish, coffee/sandwich shops have fewer takers and some close, travel agents lose business, airlines have fewer flights. All of this distresses businesspeople, erodes profits, reduces dividends, diminishes stock prices, forces closures and bankrupts some, and results in personal dismay and depression. Yet, the business community stays mute.

A reasonable reaction would be to shout from the rooftops:

“Shut your mouths Abbott, Hockey, Robb, Cormann, your scaremongering is frightening people; your doom and gloom is driving customers away, it’s killing our business, sending us broke, and driving shareholders to desperation as their pensions erode and their dreams of comfortable retirement evaporate”.

But they say nothing. Why oh why?

Several explanations for this extraordinary behaviour are offered:

Many businessmen are Coalition supporters and won’t criticize their own. Others, believing that the Coalition will form the next government, out of self-interest refrain from disapproving their behaviour.

Some businessmen are rent-seekers and because they need the Coalition’s support, will not criticize. Honour among thieves inhibits other businessmen from entering the debate.

Indifferent relationships between business and the current government restrain some businessmen from criticizing the alternative government.

You may have other explanations for this astonishing unwillingness of businesspeople to insist that Abbott and Co. stop talking down our economy, the envy of the developed world, and stop wreaking havoc with their businesses.

What do you think?

Abbott and Hockey are endangering Australian business

Writing on Poll Bludger, Bushfire Bill has made the telling point that every time someone talks down our economy, another small business, and larger ones too, are placed in jeopardy. And who is it that most often talks our economy down? You know. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. And when they need a little help, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann are always at the ready.

Yet we know that when they come out and disparage the economy, it is entirely a political strategy. Not for a moment do they believe that the economy is performing as poorly as they portray. When they go overseas they talk it up; they claim ‘bragging rights’ for Australia. Yet here they talk it down.

First, let’s get an idea of how consumers and businessmen view the economy, then look at the extent of the ‘talking down the economy’ problem, and finally we’ll take a look as BB’s novel counter move.

Business and consumer confidence are a reflection of how the state of the economy is viewed by those who manufacture or sell goods on the one hand and those that buy them on the other. There are several measures used in Australia. Although Greg Jericho shows in his comprehensive article in May about consumer confidence in The Drum that its correlation with other measures of economic activity is imprecise, he does agree that “consumer confidence is worth measuring, if only because it does give us insight into how consumers feel, and how the economy is being reported, and how well the Government is selling its view of the economy."

Roy Morgan runs a weekly consumer confidence rating. This is the last report – 3-4 November. It shows the rating “has risen strongly to 115.4 (up 2.7pts) driven by increasing confidence about the next 12 months with 41% (up 3%) of Australians expecting their family to be ‘better off financially’ this time next year and 29% (up 2%) expecting ‘good times’ for the Australian economy over the next 12 months.”

Another is the Westpac Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment, which is an average of five component indexes which reflect consumers' evaluations of their household financial situation over the past year and the coming year, anticipated economic conditions over the coming year and the next five years, and buying conditions for major household items. Compiled from a survey of 1,200 Australians, index scores below 100 indicate that pessimists outweigh optimists. Historically, from 1974 until 2012, Australia Consumer Confidence averaged 101.85 reaching an all time high of 127.67 in January of 2005 and a record low of 64.61 in November of 1990. This week it is at a 19-month high, the best since April 2011, at 104.

For business confidence there is the Australia Business Confidence measure. The National Australia Bank's monthly survey of business confidence measures current performance of the non-farm business sector and is based on a survey of around 350 small to large sized companies. Historically, from 1997 until 2012, Australia Business Confidence averaged 6.13 reaching an all time high of 21.10 in May of 2002 and a record low of -31.60 in January of 2009. A survey taken in mid October shows it was -1 in September, down from 0 in August. A look at the graph shows it has hovered three to four points above or below zero for about a year. This week a survey by the Australian Institute of Company Directors shows that confidence among the 500 company directors surveyed is at its lowest level in two years, which the spokesman attributes to the slowing local and global economies, low consumer confidence, a high Australian dollar, regulation, and low productivity.

It is against this background of measures that we need to ask what is affecting the attitudes of consumers and businessmen. As with all measures of economic activity, the factors are complex, multiple, and interacting, but some stand out as likely to be highly relevant.

The situation in Europe appears to weigh heavily on both consumers and business. The gloom that we hear almost every day about Greece, and if it’s not Greece, it’s Spain or even Italy, is depressing. People are worried about a Greek default and a possible domino effect across Europe and the globe. The US economy is also a worry and all the talk of the US economy going over a ‘fiscal cliff’ has frightened people. It is noteworthy that since President Obama’s re-election just a few days ago, concern about the fiscal cliff at first diminished, but has escalated again after recent tough talk from both the Republicans and the President.

Another factor that must still occupy people’s minds is the GFC. Many were over-committed when it hit – maxed out on their credit card and struggling with mortgage repayments on their McMansions, homes they really could not afford. The GFC brought them up with a jolt, scared them about their spending, and pushed them towards austerity and saving instead of spending. This persists, although it may now be easing. We saw this when the first cash payments were made in response to the GFC, where much of the payments was banked. This was an appropriate response as many were living beyond their means, putting purchases on the never-never, and headed for financial distress. Consumers felt less confident, they spent more prudently, and business suffered as consumers bought less. Having created a ‘buy now, pay years later’ mentality among his Harvey Norman customers for years, Gerry Harvey screamed blue murder because his customers were no longer buying as before.

No doubt there are other local as well as global factors that influence people’s attitudes and confidence, and that of businessmen, but it is hard to discount the negative talk of the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Treasurer, as well as the Shadow Finance Minister, Andrew Robb, and the Assistant Opposition Treasury Spokesman, Mathias Cormann, as a contributory factor to the less than healthy confidence ratings of consumers and businessmen.

We don’t have to go back far to see examples of the Opposition talking down the economy, despite it being the most robust in the developed world and the envy of G20 finance ministers. Only last month in Tony Abbott Talking Down the Economy is Living up to His Name, Says Wayne Swan, Erik Pineda reported that Tony Abbott had supported the observation by David Murray, once head of the Commonwealth Bank and Australia’s Future Fund, that he was worried by Australia's low productivity and too high foreign debt, which…were clear recipes that brought down the economies of many in Europe, specifically that of Greece. Abbott added: "The lesson of Europe is that countries can go very quickly from a strong position to a parlous position if things aren't well managed… Australia could easily go down the drain, in the same way key economies in Europe did.”

Imagine the effect of such an alarming comment on people already worried about the situation in Europe.

Wayne Swan retorted that Abbott had “sunk to new depths of negativity and economic recklessness in talking our economy down," and that for him “to compare the local setting to that of Europe was both out of context and irresponsible”, as indeed it was. Julia Gillard said it was absurd "to compare our circumstances to Greece", and that it was "grossly irresponsible and wrong". She added: "…markets listen to what political leaders say, this can have repercussions in the real world that matter for the Australian economy."

In an October 3 piece in The Australian: Abbott talking down economy on mining boom, says Gillard, Lanai Vasek reports that Tony Abbott said: “a sooner-than-expected end to the mining boom was the result of Labor's poor economic policy and that all booms had to finish but that Labor had stifled the current resources boom with its Minerals Resource Rent Tax.”

Julia Gillard responded: "That is clearly a nonsense remark and it is wrong and inappropriate for anybody to be talking the Australian economy down. We've got a resources boom where we are yet to see the investment peak and the production peak.”

Reflect on the effect of that Abbott remark on confidence.

Joe Hockey talks down the economy so often it would take several pieces to document them all. He has consistently berated the Government’s economic policies, and echoing Tony Abbott, has labelled the Gillard Government as the worst government in Australian political history, unable to manage money, addicted to spending, debt and deficit, and one that will never bring down a surplus budget. No matter how good the economic news, he will talk it down and turn it into a negative.

Last month, David Bradbury, Assistant Treasurer had this to say:

“Shadow Treasurer and good news hater Joe Hockey was belting out tunes from his favourite broken record again today with his relentless talking down of Australia's economy.

“The hard facts that Mr Hockey wants to deny are:

“Yesterday's IMF's October 2012 World Economic Outlook showed Australia is now the world's 12th largest economy and has leapfrogged three places ahead under the Labor Government, after slipping back three places under the previous government.

“The Australian economy has been growing for 21 consecutive years, not shrinking as Tony Abbott has said.

“Tax to GDP is lower under this Labor Government than it was when the Liberal Government left office.

“Interest rates are lower than at any time under the former Liberal Government.

“Unemployment remains low at just over 5 per cent and at a time when the world has shed millions of jobs, Australia has created around 800,000 jobs.

“The day after the IMF upgraded the ranking of the Australian economy, Mr Hockey insisted on peddling his doom and gloom in a disgraceful effort to undermine confidence and make life harder for Australian families and businesses…Mr Hockey just wants to distract attention from his $70 billion budget crater and his secret plans to slash tens of thousands of jobs and cut frontline services. Mr Hockey should stop talking the economy down and come clean with how he is going to fund his gaping budget hole.”

When Wayne Swan was named Treasurer of the Year by Euromoney magazine, Hockey talked Swan's accolade down as reported in Swan soars before hit with the hockey stick. In doing so, Hockey managed to insult the economies of several developing countries, whose chief finance ministers have previously received the Euromoney award. Said Hockey: ''Over the last few years we've had two Slovakian ministers, a Serbian, a Nigerian, a Bulgarian . . . 2001 a Pakistani finance minister, that's quite an extraordinary one, that one…That's not any basis upon which I can give my endorsement to the Treasurer.”

Hockey has not a trace of charity; knocking is his only device.

This talking down of the economy is not new. Earlier this year in Julia Gillard slams Andrew Robb over talking down economy Ben Packham wrote: “Julia Gillard has accused opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb of "deeply irresponsible conduct" after he declared Australia's economy was at risk of a European-style meltdown.”

“Mr Robb told The Australian the nation's debt growth had been outstripped only by global financial crisis casualties Iceland and Ireland, leaving the nation vulnerable to a fall in the nation's terms of trade.

“The Prime Minister said in reality, Australia had received a triple-A rating from all three ratings agencies, a feat not achieved before including under the former Howard government.

“She said Mr Robb's comments were themselves a risk to the Australian economy: "We are at a time in the world economy where there is volatility out of the eurozone." That means that markets are skittish. That means it's an incredibly dangerous time for people to be spruiking nonsense about the Australian economy. And that's what Mr Robb has been doing - talking our economy down."

When Robb does appear, we know that dismal, cheerless economic gloom will be all he is able to offer.

Mathias Cormann is always ready to join the fray. In the Senate he asked: “Will the government now concede that its carbon tax, its mining tax, its massive increases in red and green tape, increased union militancy on its watch and all of its other anti-mining policies and anti-mining rhetoric have hurt Australia's economic fortunes?” to which Senator Chris Evans responded: “Relentlessly talking down the economy in this country by the Liberal and National parties is absolutely bad for confidence, bad for jobs. What we know is that there is record investment, a record pipeline of coming investment, and the mining industry remains strong.”

Cormann went even further in The Australian last month in Labor's rush to pull veil over budget black hole a conjuring trick, asserting:

“Labor knows that's a serious problem for its fiscal credibility. It knows that the delivery of yet another deficit, the fifth Swan deficit in a row, will be seen by most for what it is - the conclusive proof (if that were required) that Labor cannot manage money.”

If carping was a criterion of success in the Opposition finance team, Cormann would be a star.

Talking down the economy has been a consistent Coalition theme for the last two years. It would take many pages to document all the instances. It never seems to occur to the Coalition finance team that all its negative talk is damaging to our economy. Of course, if they actually do know that, it makes their destructive actions all the more reprehensible. They are mimicking the strategy of the US Tea Party that was prepared to bring down the US economy in order to make President Obama look incompetent, and have him replaced by their man, Mitt Romney. They failed.

Why do businessmen not tell Abbott and Co. to shut their damaging mouths? Can’t they see they are wrecking their businesses? While consumer confidence is on the up, the businessmen are still miserable, their confidence dropping. Do they believe the doom and gloom perpetrated by the Coalition so-called finance team? Looks like it!

Now for Bushfire Bill’s novel answer to the Coalition’s destructivity, one he offered on Poll Bludger on October 24. In response to another blogger’s comment that read: “The Liberal Party could do itself and Australia a major, cleansing, favour: sack Mr Abbott, Ms Credlin and Mr Loughnane. This trio has spent the best part of four years wrecking the joint”, BB had this to say:

“The line I’ve used with my colleagues in the high-discretionary-spending area of high-end Home Entertainment has been simple:

“Every time Abbott or Hockey trash the economy, you lose another sale.”

“It works a treat.

“I then follow up with:

“If buyers have no confidence, then they won’t go out and make purchases. First cab off the rank will be your $xx,000 widget [insert name of expensive Home Entertainment toy here.]

“It really does get them thinking.

“My killer concluding line is:

“It’s not a game anymore. It’s not FUN anymore. It’s real. The Coalition is talking down YOUR business for no reason. They didn’t get their early election. All they have is a lead in the polls – and that’s fading away.”

“Is the damage they’ve done – and are still doing – to your business worth it?”

“It’s amazing how resonant these few simple lines can be. Even the drongo who wanted Gillard to fall over on gravel and break her face listened, eventually.”

Later BB advises: “The government should start this ball rolling, across all fronts. Put misogyny to one side. It’s important, but not as important as convicting the Coalition of directly affecting confidence and thus the economy.

“The aim of the campaign would be to have the punters so exasperated with the doom-and-gloom talk from the Coalition that they yell at their TV sets, “Just SHUT-UP Abbott!”

“In answer to the objection that “the government would say that”, you just reply:

"That's the government's JOB. Confidence is a real input to the economy. The government has a DUTY to talk confidence up, especially when it's warranted. Without confidence no one gets out of bed in the morning. And anyway, it's the best economy in the world. We SHOULD be bragging about it."

“Hammer it home. Make it stick.

“My own industry is easy, because it’s so sensitive to dorks like Can-Do Campbell saying things like “Queensland is the new Greece.” Other industries are harder nuts to crack, but do-able.

“The good thing about a confidence and anti-trash-talk campaign is that it’s not only clever, but has the virtue of being the correct, responsible and truthful thing to do.”

That is very sound advice. It’s time the Government mounted a spirited proactive campaign of ‘knocking the knockers’, not just reacting to their destructive negativity that puts down OUR economy, the one upon which we all rely.

What do you think?

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss

Is there a national election that attracts more global attention than the four-yearly US Presidential election? Is there an overseas election that has more significance for Australians? Despite confident predictions by the right wing punditry that Romney would win, it was Obama who won, and he did so handsomely. All their lofty predictions came to naught; all they ended with was resentful recrimination.

Is this a foretaste of the 2013 election here? Will the conservative punditry here be shown to be as wide of the mark as their American counterparts? The parallels between the Democrats and the ALP, and between the Republicans and the Coalition here, are striking. This piece attempts to tease them out and draw some inferences for the 2013 election.

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss

The fiscal cliff
Why is there this extraordinary worldwide interest in the US election? Right now, the US economy must rate as the prime reason. We know that it faces a ‘fiscal cliff’, well described in the SMH by Max Mason in What is the fiscal cliff?. Mason explains that the term depicts ”…a raft of tax increases and spending cuts that will automatically come into effect at the beginning of 2013 if the Democrats and Republicans cannot negotiate a new set of budgetary and economic policies to reduce the spiralling budget deficit of $US1.1 trillion.”

The tax cuts for the wealthy introduced by George Bush have been legislated to stop at the end of 2102, which means that taxes would then rise sharply, particularly for the rich. This, coupled with equally drastic cuts to defence and domestic spending, would almost halve the budget deficit to $US641 billion in the 2013 fiscal year. But an undesired consequence of this radical move would be recession and rising unemployment, with, however, a return to growth after 2013.

On the other hand, if George Bush’s tax breaks were to continue and spending was to remain unchanged, it is estimated that the deficit would blow out to an massive $US8.8 trillion by 2022. Servicing such a debt would be a huge challenge, carrying with it the risk of default on loans – a fall over the ‘fiscal cliff’ – that would have worldwide repercussions.

Yet the Republicans want the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy to continue, and are against cuts to defence spending. As post-election control of Congress is still in the hands of the Republicans, a bill to that effect could still be passed. But President Obama has vowed to veto any attempt to bypass ‘the cliff’ that does not include expiration of tax cuts for the wealthy. As a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate is needed to override a Presidential veto, this is unlikely to occur.

A compromise somewhere in between these extreme positions is possible but not promising, despite the renewal of Obama’s mandate. The contemporary signals coming from House Speaker John Boehner are mixed. Although he is pledging to work with the President, he is still saying that he ‘doesn’t want any tax hikes’.

Because the Republicans have been playing a game of brinkmanship on this matter, local and overseas stock markets have been left in a state of jittery uncertainty, all the more so since the election.

I go into this detail because the danger of the US falling over the fiscal cliff is high, and should that happen, the economy of the entire globe will be seriously affected. Wayne Swan was vocal about this at the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Mexico.

This situation in the US points to the similarity between the attitude of the US Republican Party and that of the Coalition in Australia. Ostensibly on ideological grounds, they both trenchantly oppose, even if that seriously threatens to damage the nation’s economy. The intent of the Republicans is to make it impracticable for the President and his Democrats to govern, even to the extent of pushing the US over the fiscal cliff.

Brinkmanship has been played ruthlessly; the bitter mood of the Republicans after their defeat in the presidential race will likely accelerate movement down this dangerous path. But the mood of the American people is such that it will likely no longer tolerate such obstructive behaviour from its politicians, such a recipe for gridlock, especially so soon after Obama’s mandate has been so convincingly renewed.

Similarly, the Coalition here does what it can to prevent the Government from governing, albeit mostly unsuccessfully, and threatens to undo much of the legislation already passed should it assume office.

The extreme position of the Republicans is a reflection of the influence of the Tea Party, which has dragged the Party to the hard right. We can expect similar Republican/Tea Party tactics from the Coalition here. Tony Abbott’s previous parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi, recently demoted because of his linking of bestiality to same-sex marriage, has spent time with the US Tea Party and has imported their obstructive methods into Australian politics.

Election dynamics and the punditry
There are a number of aspects of the US campaign that are noteworthy. The conservative media completely misjudged the campaign and the outcome. An article in Newser titled Conservative media blew it begins: If you relied on conservative media for your election news, Obama’s win likely came as quite a surprise. But, while right-wing pundits had long been predicting a Romney victory, the mainstream media knew all along that the president had a much better shot, writes Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic. Voters who got all their information from conservative media were vastly "misinformed," and they should be very angry at just how remarkably said media failed them, he writes. By rejecting rigorous, credible experts like Nate Silver in favor of ‘ideological hacks’, conservative pundits "were operating at a self-imposed information disadvantage."

“But that's no surprise—they've been doing it for years. Conservative media outlets wasted time on ridiculous stories, candidates, and conspiracy theories (birtherism, Herman Cain…) while pundits refused to criticize their own side, resulting in a ‘conservative echo chamber’ that…made a lot of cynical people a lot of money, while keeping voters in the dark. "On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media," writes Friedersdorf. "It ought to be an eye-opening moment."

This is what Friedersdorf said in the Atlantic: ”Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday's result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout -- Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes. Joe Scarborough scoffed at the notion that the election was anything other than a toss-up. Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.”

Reflect on how similar the conservative media is here. The pundits at News Limited and many at Fairfax too have been calling the next election for the Coalition based on polls of voting intention for two years now, and still are, one year out from the next election, notwithstanding the lack of predictive power of these polls. In the US most pundits said the Presidential election was ‘too close to call’ or ‘on a knife’s edge’. This was faithfully echoed in our own MSM. These predictions were all based on polls of the overall popular vote although everyone knew that the election of the President is based not on the popular vote, but on electoral college votes derived from voting in the fifty states, which although close, always favoured Obama, especially in the key battleground states, which carried large parcels of electoral college votes. This is just how it turned out.

In A victory for data over punditry in The Drum the ABC’s Jonathan Green writes ”The 2012 US election will be remembered as the day the bluff and bluster of the mainstream press came undone by the quiet science of polling. Yesterday's big winner? The elegant simplicity of a mathematical certainty; of reason. Its losers? The pompous self-serving chumps of the punditocracy, for one. And also, more significantly, a mainstream media that wants politics to be a slowly revealing secret ... something only it can truly see.” Green could have been writing about our MSM.

Later he says: ”This Obama victory tells us much about the way we consume our politics today. It tells us that pundits are quite often loud, confident and wrong. It tells us that political polling is now a thing of great and elegant sophistication. And polling has now been made all the more authoritatively representative of reality by the sort of meta-polling done by the likes of Nate Silver, by the application of algorithms and cold reason to massed and detailed samplings of the electorate.” Green then quotes Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian: “One of the most depressing elements of this final election result is the absolute supremacy of the polls. I last wrote about the election on Saturday, when the polls were too close to call. But in the few days since then the polls moved more or less decisively towards Obama. And the polls were right., and concludes: ”We'll leave Greg there in his lonely struggle with mathematics. The truth is that the polls were always close, but also callable. Because people did call it, and they got it right. Nate Silver's predictions, based on poll after poll after poll, picked every state in the union. Did we just watch the election that finally consigned the lofty 'we know best' horse race of mainstream political journalism to the knackery? Let's see.”

Yes, let’s see. I doubt if this will change our pundits’ behaviour one jot, so large are their egos, so arrogant their predictions, so geared to wishful thinking, and so deafened by groupthink in their noisy echo chambers. If you don’t believe me, re-read what Turncoat Richo said last September.

Writing in similar vein inThe Drum in The dying art of punditry in Australia, Barrie Cassidy concludes:

”In Australia too the art of punditry is dead, or close to it.

“At a recent summit in Canberra, one of the more self-effacing members of the Press Gallery was asked to make a few predictions. "The way we are travelling," he said, "you would be better off following a bunch of blindfolded monkeys throwing darts."

“The record of punditry through this year speaks for itself.

“The minority government will collapse, and there will be an early election.

“Kevin Rudd will reclaim the leadership, if not this month, then next month, or the month after that...

“If he doesn't then Julia Gillard and the Government faces annihilation whenever the election is held.

“Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is as safe as houses.

“And 'that' speech on sexism was a shocker, guaranteed to backfire.

“It's not
[just] a Canberra Press Gallery thing. Most of those predictions have been embraced at one point or another by regular columnists right around the country.

“It seems that as every opinion poll comes along, political judgments are made and then somehow snap frozen. There is no acceptance that the polls, and the politics, are subject to significant change.

“Silver, the latest geek to make a name for himself in New York, would never make the call until the last minute. Only when the election is nigh would he crunch all the numbers.

“Consumers of all this punditry have been badly let down this year, no doubt about it. But they shouldn't get too upset.

“As we have seen yet again, the pundits, no matter how big their reputations, have practically no influence on election results.”

Remember that. One of the top pundits has said so, one that has pundits talking to pundits every week on his show Insiders.

Greg Jericho wrote his usual erudite assessment in 2012 US Election: Obama and maths win. Do read it and enjoy the splendid graphics. Scroll to the end to read the tweets of some who could not accept the results, even as they were confirmed. Note that it was the aggregated polls, the meta-analyses that correctly predicted the outcome. Note too that he quotes Possum’s Pollytrend: ”Yes a poll can be “wrong” but when you start collating lots of them, for them to be wrong you need to start assuming a lot of things that don’t gel with reality. It’s why in Australia you don’t need to worry about individual poll movement – but instead be smart and look at Possum’s Pollytrend.”

From now on, let’s ignore the pundits – they get it wrong so consistently that it is clear they are running an agenda of wishful thinking that reflects their own, or their editor’s, or their proprietor’s desires, rather than offering critical, honest and informed analysis.

And let’s ignore individual polls and take note of the trends.

Obama’s win and Republican Romney’s loss, and how they were predicted, give us heart in our Aussie context.

Climate change
This did not feature much in the campaign, but as Tristan Edis says in Climate Spectator in Obama's victory a win for reason and moderation ”Climate change was not completely forgotten by Obama even if he gave it a low profile in the campaign. In his victory speech he made a brief reference to the issue stating, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

“He also made remarks around freeing the country from dependence on foreign oil, which plays to his administration’s dramatic increase in motor vehicle fuel economy standards.”

Later Edis says: ”While it will be tough for Obama to enact substantially strengthened policies to reduce emissions, his victory will mean the Republican House is at least contained from unwinding the progress he has already achieved…Also the US EPA has been quietly enacting new standards governing power plant emissions that will help put the nail in the coffin of many a coal plant, although cheap shale gas has done more of the heavy lifting in this area. Wind power had also become a major player in new electricity supply, supported by a tax credit which Romney said he would seek to abolish.”

Obama’s convincing victory will embolden him to further his efforts to reduce emissions and embrace emissions trading schemes that are already in place in several states. This will diminish the potency of the Coalition’s disingenuous statement that Australia is virtually going it alone with its carbon pricing and ETS, and weaken Tony Abbott’s vow to dismantle it.

The curse of conservatives supporters
Perhaps one of the most profound lessons from the US elections is the disconnect between the Republicans and the surging numbers and growing influence of Hispanics, Afro-Americans, Women (many of them Young Single Women), the Young, the Singles, Gays and Lesbians, and Asians, groups largely met with indifference by conservatives, who more and more are symbolized as Angry Grey-Haired Middle Aged Christian White Males with a sense of entitlement to power and a yearning for the Good Old Days. Piers Akerman is archetypical of these conservatives, as we saw this morning on Insiders. Reflect on those gathered to celebrate a Romney victory; how many outside this narrow group did you see? How many Afro-Americans; how many Hispanics; how many Asians? Very, very few!

As Edis observes: ”Perhaps of most importance though is that this election victory should help prompt a serious rethink amongst the wise heads of the Republican Party about the direction of their party. If they are to regain the presidency they must expand their appeal beyond the states in the religious and highly socially conservative south and mid-west. Their conventions and election party were dominated by grey-haired white people. These people have a high propensity to get out and vote, but they aren’t a recipe for long-term vitality in an increasingly multi-racial society. In addition Obama has done a remarkable job of getting the young, the black and the Latino’s into the voting booth.

“Broadening the Republican’s appeal will be impossible without steering the party away from ideological, anti-science, often racist, extremists from the Tea Party. You won’t win over the progressive states by embracing people who think women can control whether or not they end up pregnant from rape. Nor by taking the government to the very verge of defaulting on their loans based on a fanciful idea that the government could cut expenditure by 40% overnight. Nor will you do this by dismissing the research and advice of highly qualified scientists because it conflicts with a literal interpretation of the bible, and a belief that God controls nature.”

Does all that remind you of the situation here? Sure, we don’t have Hispanics and Africans in the numbers they have there, but half our population is Women; there are many, many Gays and Lesbians, many Young People, and increasing numbers from Asia. We are not solely comprised of audiences who listen adoringly to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. And we do have our quota of cranks who discard the notion of global warming, many of whom belong to the extreme religious right, who seek to influence conservative policy, and plenty of rednecks who scarify Muslims and sundry other immigrants, and push us toward intolerance. Malcolm Turnbull sees the danger. In Turnbull uses US poll to warn against giving in to political fringes in the SMH, Phillip Coorey quotes Turnbull: ”…the Republican failure at this week's US election was a lesson to all political parties against pandering towards extremist views…The lessons...for everybody is that if you run off to the extremes in politics, which is what the Republicans did, some of their candidates were saying some really bizarre things, which resulted in them losing.”

To succeed in this country, political parties need to appeal to the wide spectrum of races, religions, beliefs, gender, age groups, and social groupings that grace our society. Parties that alienate groups, or ignore them, do so at their peril. Conservatives here run the risk of doing what their counterparts did in the US, ignoring large groups of would-be supporters, in a manner similar to the way Alan Jones and Ray Hadley do by pandering to a limited group of narrow-minded sexist bigots to the exclusion of broadminded, free-thinking people.

This piece draws parallels between the Republicans in the US and Coalition supporters here.

Both play obstructionist, destructive, divisive politics. Both seek to make governance as difficult as they can. Both talk down the economy for political gain. Both threaten to wreck the place to gain power, and seek to shout themselves into office. Both threaten to repeal legislation passed by the other. ‘Obama-care’ there, and the ‘carbon tax’ here, are examples.

Both have their political pundits in the mainstream media who use polls inappropriately to predict political outcomes. Both have pundits who get it wrong again and again. Both have pundits who allow their wishful thinking or that of their editors or proprietors or sponsors to override the factual evidence.

Both appeal to a limited group of voters to the exclusion of others. Both foster media outlets that promote bigotry, and political, sexist and secular bias.

Both embrace climate change skeptics, creationists and in some instances racists.

Both are fixated in the past and yearn for days of yore, the good old days when they were young, when they were firmly in control, and in our case, when the British Empire and Europe reigned supreme.

Both favour free markets, big business, small government and light regulation. Both are neo-conservatives.

What then are the lessons for us from the recent US election?

Remember that Republicans and Coalition members are very similar in ideology, philosophy and their operational strategies and tactics. The Coalition will use Tea Party methods against the Government.

Beware of the political punditry. Ignore their predictions. Ignore their analysis of individual polls, and take note only of trends. Ignore any opinion they offer that is not based on verifiable facts and well-reasoned logic. Too many are incompetent or malevolent or both. They get it wrong too often. Too many are not running an honest agenda. They are too often running someone else’s agenda.

Be aware of the danger of ignoring increasingly influential and vocal groups. Be sensitive to the needs of women, the young, homosexual groups, the disadvantaged and disabled, the indigenous, the new arrivals, and the diverse ethnic groups that now make up our nation. Political parties ignore them at their peril.

Get behind the Government and its positive reformist legislative agenda, one of the most forward-looking in decades. Get behind the Prime Minister, one of the strongest and most resolute we have ever seen.

Review the election strategy of President Obama and the Democrats, and adapt to our situation what has proved to be successful.

Check every utterance of the Opposition for factual accuracy and logic, insist on policy clarity and accurate costings, insist on answers to reasonable questions, and reject obfuscation and dishonesty. Reject negativity whenever it appears.

The Fourth Estate has let us all down by not doing its job. The Fifth Estate must even more rigorously hold it to account, and expose deceit, incompetence and malevolence whenever it raises its ugly head.

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss. Something similar is on track to happen here. Even Michelle Grattan sees the striking parallels. Although much of our conservative commentariat is wont to dismiss these parallels, they are there to see for all who have un-blinkered vision.

2013 holds high promise for Labor and our PM.

What do you think?

Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton

This book came out in 2005, and as far as I can remember, attracted remarkably little interest. Hugh Stretton is one of Australia’s foremost thinkers, and he has an international reputation for his work in the area of values in the social sciences. Though he started off teaching history – at Oxford, then Adelaide University – he finished up as a researcher in economics. This book is a work of political economy; it looks at how we got into the political and economic trouble we are in, and what we might do to fix it. Stretton argues ‘that we should be doing whatever it takes in our changing historical conditions, by old means and new, to keep Australia fair’. And this was before the GFC. How could such a relevant and important book be overlooked now?

In this post, I’m going to look at what Stretton says about how we got where we are, and in a later post I’ll outline what he thinks we could do about it.

It’s actually quite easy to see why the book was largely ignored. It takes a lonely stand against the economic orthodoxy accepted at the time by the Labor Party, the LNP and most economic commentators. It sees the changes to the operation of the economy, started by the Hawke-Keating government and pursued further by the Howard government, not as great and necessary reforms that have benefited all of us, but as an abdication of the power to control the economy for the general good. Stretton wrote too early. It’s only since the GFC dented confidence in the free market’s ability to deliver a fair society that such arguments are again being entertained. Well, he certainly makes a good one and it’s time to look at it again.

Paul Keating, Stretton says, brought about a U-turn in Labor economic policy. Instead of using the state to pursue full employment and balanced development, Keating gave up the power to do this. As well as removing most tariff protection, he ‘reduced the regulation of business, privatised some public services and slimmed others to cut their costs, maintained some unemployment to restrain inflation, shifted taxation downward from the highest incomes, and thus increased some inequalities.’ Stretton says that Keating knew that this would hurt some citizens, and accepted that there would have to be a safety net that provided good health care, welfare and education to those left behind. He argues Keating’s motivation was good, that he believed such changes would result in optimum foreign investment, employment, growth, and low inflation. The wealth thus produced could be used to compensate the losers.

I well remember how inexorable this program seemed at the time, particularly as most commentators endorsed it. Labor values seemed to be disappearing, but what was the alternative? Once the process had begun, LNP governments, state and federal, would only take it further, and so it proved. In the face of frustration and impotence on the economic front, Labor activism shifted to the identity issues of gender, race and sexuality – important in themselves, but cutting across the economic divide of the haves and have nots. Other activists turned to the battle over conservation of heritage and biodiversity, and joined the Greens. And some of us withdrew from politics altogether. A pox on both your houses.

Stretton agrees that for some of the time – when for example the business cycle is in an up-swing, or there are (or were) short term profits from asset sales (or there is a mining boom) – some of these good things have happened. But he argues that the downside has been greater than any benefits. Our current arrangement, he says, ‘trusts production to private enterprise and market forces with minimum public aid or regulation. Government’s role is to rescue the resultant losers and correct the misdistribution of income by tax and welfare means. In practice that has become so expensive for an under-employed and ageing population that we don’t do it very well.’ He deals with specific downsides in the chapters about what might still be done to correct the situation in areas such as employment, housing, health and education, income and natural resources. But as a quick summary, the downsides include unemployment, rising numbers on welfare, a smaller tax base to pay for welfare, unaffordable housing, less effective public services (cut to trim costs), more user pays, unproductive investment aimed at speculative returns, some spectacular corporate failures and more inequality. And his point is that much of this comes down to an economic policy chosen by a Labor government which gives undue freedom to the market.

Stretton is far too subtle a thinker simply to be making a case for ‘government intervention’ versus ‘the free market’. He argues that government always has a role in even the most free of markets; it is a question of the public-private mix – with the addition of the contribution of the not-for-profit sector and households. After all, as he points out, ‘It takes work by more than one of them, and often enough by all four, to get your dinner on the table, your car on the road or your children educated.’ Furthermore, unlike with market solutions, there is no ‘one size fits all’; it is a question of working with an eclectic mix of old and new, theory and practice, and experience and imagination. For the detail, see my next post.

Quite apart from the overall sweep of Stretton’s argument – and I have in no way done it justice here – there are two insights that in the light of current circumstances, struck me forcibly. One concerns pokies. As a result of spending cuts in pursuit of smaller government, revenue grants to states have been cut, leaving them less and less able to afford to provide the services for which they are responsible. ‘Desperate needs breed sickening remedies,’ writes Stretton. Most of the States have acted to expand gambling and their revenue from it … unlike the capital proceeds of privatisation, the gambling revenue is reliably, seductively sustainable.’ So the current plague of gambling addiction is an unintended consequence of economic rationalism.

The second insight is that where both sides of politics agree on the fundamental primacy of the market, politics easily degenerates into arguments about management – think BER and pink batts – and the trustworthiness of leaders – think JuLiar and sexism. These may be important, but they shouldn’t be all there is. What Stretton had before him at the time of writing was Mark Latham’s apparent acceptance that ‘the voters who matter are self-interested battlers, contemptuous of idlers living on welfare, and easily frightened by talk of higher taxes or interest rates or inflation.’ I would argue that Labor is now making some effort to initiate a debate about the role of the state, with the carbon tax, the mining tax (however watered down) and a modest assault on middle class welfare. But I’m not sure what direction these baby steps are going in – certainly Hugh Stretton would not be satisfied.

For all there is so much good stuff in it, I can’t say this is an easy book. You’ll see in my next post that his proposed solutions, though sometimes simple, aren’t easy either. But it’s a book that deserves much wider reading and discussion. Perhaps someone should send it to the Prime Minister for Christmas.

Kay Rollison also blogs at What Book to Read – reviewing everything from crime to literary fiction.

The Abbott ‘family’ rush to prop up its errant child prodigy

It began right after Tony Abbott was unexpectedly elevated to the lofty position of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. There was only one vote in it, but there he was, where he had long fantasized he might be, in line to be the nation’s next Prime Minister. His hurriedly called press conference was a mix of surprise and high expectations, albeit tempered a little by the reality of being pitted against a once very popular PM in Kevin Rudd. Just one sentence was memorable: “If I win the next election I will be considered a genius; if not, I will be road kill.” How prescient. Yet that sentence gave hope to a languishing Coalition torn by the trauma of ejecting one leader, then selecting one that was not planned to be the leader at all. It was supposed to be Joe Hockey, but having messed up his campaign with equivocation about his support for an ETS, he was surprisingly eliminated at the first ballot, leaving just Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott to slug it out.

The prospect of a genius wresting power from the Labor usurpers was appealing. After all, John Howard’s Coalition should never have lost to upstart Rudd and his Labor Party. The Coalition, as the natural party of government, one that had been so for over eleven long years, should have continued. Having been robbed of victory, and the Prime Minister having lost his seat to a journalist, redress was needed, and as soon as possible.

The earnest Brendan Nelson never had a hope against the determined and resourceful Malcolm Turnbull, who quickly edged him out. But despite showing high promise, Turnbull’s reputation was badly dented by the Grech affair, and even more dangerously so within his own party by his support for a modified Rudd ETS. The hard right conservatives and climate skeptics/deniers, led by Nick Minchin, cooked up a plot to replace Turnbull with Hockey, but when that backfired there was the astonished Tony Abbott facing the media.

At that time, Abbott scarcely had a family at all, that is a political family. Having messed up badly during the 2007 election, he had few followers. But what his party knew, and many in the Fifth Estate could see, was that this man was a pugilist from his university days and that this was an attribute he would bring to leadership, having already had plenty of practice as John Howard’s attack dog. It was not long before we saw his pugilism in savage action.

Always a prizefighter, he settled on a strategy based on short unforgettable slogans, jabbing endlessly at Labor’s soft spots. The carbon tax, boat arrivals, and debt and deficit were all simple targets, with easy to remember, easy to create three word slogans that could be repeated ad nauseam no matter what the occasion.

The public, disengaged at that time from serious political discourse, readily cottoned onto these slogans and were soon repeating them over a beer or a latte, or at the water cooler. It was an easy strategy, and as polls steadily moved in favour of the Coalition, was seen by journalists as a ‘clever’ and successful one. Soon the notion of ‘Abbott as genius’ captured the imagination of the Canberra Press Gallery, always excited by the prospect of a fight, especially where the underdog showed a good prospect of winning. Traditionally inclined towards the conservative side of politics, and becoming disenchanted with PM Rudd and his Government, many in the MSM joined the ‘Abbott family’, and verbalized their support through their columns. ‘Genius’ Abbott, now showing ‘child prodigy’ attributes, could do no wrong. He, and his strategy, was soon categorized as ‘brilliant’, and he was already being dubbed ‘the most successful Leader of the Opposition in Australian political history’.

Then came the abrupt removal of Kevin Rudd, and his replacement with Julia Gillard. This traumatic event, and Laurie Oakes’ revelation in the 2010 election campaign of the behind the scenes plotting that seemed to some to implicate Julia Gillard, turned the public away from Labor. As the polls moved more and more to the Coalition until the two parties were level, the Abbott genius was amplified, and soon pollsters were predicting a ‘hung parliament’, which turned out to be the case.

Then came the agonizing seventeen days of negotiation with the Independents and Greens, in the end clearly won by Julia Gillard, and lost by Tony Abbott whom we now know would have done anything, anything at all to get the prize. The Independents judged him to be less suitable than Julia Gillard to be the PM. He lost, and as Anthony Albanese has often said, subjected us to ‘the longest dummy-spit in Australian political history’. He was a sore loser during university days, and still was.

Because PM Gillard was landed with a minority Government, Abbott saw her as vulnerable and illegitimate, and set about to destroy her and her Government just like he had done with his opponents in the boxing ring at Oxford. He threw everything at her, believing he would soon knock her and her Government to the canvas, bloodied and beaten, and that a new bout would be ordered which he would win in the first round. He sharpened his slogans. It was now a ‘toxic tax’ that would create economic havoc and devastate whole industries and towns; it became ‘a tax built on a lie’, and some of his distant political family organized carbon tax rallies that sported ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards in front of which Abbott and his shadow ministers stood.

As his flurry of wild punches hit the mark, Julia Gillard’s ratings plummeted, and Labor’s stocks steadily fell as the Coalition’s rose. Soon the Coalition was so far ahead in the polls that the Canberra Press Gallery was confidently predicting a landslide to the Coalition at the next election, the reduction of Labor to ‘a rump’, and a decade for it to recover. The Abbott family grew as more and more journalists joined the congratulatory throng. Abbott truly was a genius, more successful than any previous Opposition Leader. It was just a matter of time before he knocked PM Gillard out and forced another bout, which he would win without working up a sweat. The Press Gallery was enthusiastic.

Although Abbott had laughed when she said: “bring it on”, PM Gillard would “not lie down and die”. No matter what Abbott and the MSM threw at her, she kept coming back, feinting, throwing more and more effective punches, and accumulating points with each piece of reforming legislation passed.

Although he may have had his moments of doubt, his ever-supportive extended ‘family’ treated him as the child prodigy they felt sure he was. His brilliance was never doubted. They tolerated, even applauded his belligerence; after all, opposing was the job of an opposition! They ignored, even excused, his lack of policy and costings. They good-humouredly accepted his appearances at sundry businesses with fluoro vest and hard hat, and had no complaint about his predilection for soft interviews, his poor performance in probing ones, and his penchant for walking away when questioning at doorstops got tough. All the defects so obvious to others were overlooked or discounted by the growing political Abbott family. Tony could do no wrong.

They wrote PM Gillard off and reveled in the thought of a massive Abbott victory. They used the polls of voting intention to support their predictions, always believing an election was imminent. But PM Gillard refused to drop. She was at times bloodied, but her seconds got her up as each new round began. One year went by, then another. Journalist after journalist wrote about the ‘inevitable’ Rudd challenge, citing date after date by which it was likely to happen, but when it was finally arranged, PM Gillard was the clear victor, and although Rudd’s supporters still make intermittent subterranean noises, nothing seems likely to now bring about any change.

The Abbott man began to tire, and the Abbott machine began to run down. Throwing the same old punches, punches that missed their mark or made no lasting impact, Abbott and his family became disheartened. They had placed so much store in their prodigy, but now he was flagging before their very eyes, and before the eyes of the electorate too. His popularity slid in poll after poll, but the Coalition vote held up well, reassuring the family that although Tony was tiring, the Coalition would win easily ‘if an election was held today’. But of course it wasn’t being held today or tomorrow, and now not until next year.

Then the boy genius began to make mistakes. When his past caught up with him via David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, he mucked up his response to Marr’s revelations. His behaviour towards women became a talking point. Alan Jones joined the fray telling a Young Liberals’ audience that Julia Gillard’s father had died of shame because of his daughter’s lies. Revulsion at this outrage was widespread, but Abbott was slow to respond, slow to condemn, and to add insult to injury, he repeated the ‘died of shame’ phrase in parliament, leading to the most excoriating dressing down of an Opposition Leader by a Prime Minister ever witnessed in the House, made all the worse by the sexist overtones that showed Abbott up in such a poor light. Labor women, and women all over the country applauded, gratified that at last someone in authority had stood up for them against the sexist discrimination they had all endured. The speech went viral around the world. The child prodigy looked mean and nasty, and all the worse for him, diminished in the eyes of the electorate, women and men alike.

Family members rallied behind their boy, quibbling about the use, or as they saw it, the misuse of the word ‘misogyny’. Half brother Greg Sheridan wrote an indignant article; this was not the Tony he knew, and he had known him from university days. Margie Abbott went public about her Tony. We were told he was not a misogynist; he loved his wife and daughters. As if we ever doubted that! Abbott’s political sisters, Julie and Sophie, and his political brother Christopher, came out singing in unison that the Tony they knew was a nice man, not sexist, and certainly not a misogynist.

Brothers in the MSM wrote articles in defence. With Tony so assured of an easy victory, no matter when the next election was held, surely he couldn’t be so easily sidetracked by his past. His gauche reaction to Marr’s revelations and his handling of Jones’ ‘died of shame’ remark made matters worse. His ‘family’ began to see certainty eroding, and when Newspoll twice had the parties level pegging, mild panic began. Surely the child prodigy couldn’t mess up now.

Cousin Peter van O began to doubt, and said as much in an article: Is this the turning point. He asked: ”Has the Gillard Labor government turned the corner?” Having conceded that it could be as long as 12 months before the next federal election is called, he opined that: “Abbott must find a way to arrest the decline in his party's primary vote, which may require pivoting from his deliberately negative style of campaigning” and then expressed the unthinkable thought that, like his previous boss John Hewson who lost an ‘unloseable election’, Abbott might do likewise.

Even grandmother Michelle began to have doubts about her favourite grandson. In Headaches for Abbott as tactics falter, she ruminated about the polls, dissension in Coalition ranks, flawed tactics and not enough strategy, but not wanting to upset dear Tony too much she gave him a gentle reassuring pat: ”Abbott doesn't need to push the panic button, but unless the final polls for the year bring some good news for him, there will be pressure for serious stocktaking over Christmas.”

By the weekend though, she felt she might have gone too far, so penned a ‘can-you-believe-she-actually-wrote-this’ puff piece: Tony, lighten up for the battle ahead:

“Dear Tony,
Suddenly you have become THE talking point among the chattering commentators. We're all running round quizzing nervous Liberals about what's going wrong and what you must do about it. So, a few thoughts.

“If we mark your performance as Opposition Leader, you get distinctions for the early grades. You helped bring down Kevin Rudd, put big holes in Julia Gillard. But, unfortunately for you, Tony, you're enrolled in a continuous assessment course. There's a big exam at the end, but if you start to bomb out in the monthly assignments, there could be unpleasant surprises later.”
If Tony hadn’t already realized that this was not a short-run course, there is little hope for him. But grandmothers do sometimes state the bleeding obvious!

She wasn’t finished: ”So, you need to get those grades up, Tony - by which we mean your performance and your personal ratings. Look in the mirror - now. Why do 58 per cent disapprove of how you are doing your job?”

Like all adoring grannies, she swallowed whole her boy’s lofty, but platitudinous rhetoric during a recent economics address: ”On Friday you said you had outlined ‘plans for a stronger economy, stronger communities, a cleaner environment, stronger borders and modern infrastructure''', but, taking her courage in both hands, warned: ”Unfortunately you don't look like a guy with a plan, let alone a dream; your image is of a bloke with a pickaxe.”

Not done, Granny Michelle gives some good health advice: ”Tired mind, tired body. Cut back on the exercise a tad. Say no to some of those fund-raisers. It's been a long march and the heavy ground lies ahead”, finishing with: ”And a small postscript. Could you smooth, albeit only a tiny bit, what Barnaby calls that ''square-gaited'' walk that makes you look slightly menacing? A step too far?”

If you think I’m making this up, do read the whole article here. Is this satire? Is she having us on? I suspect this really is granny advice. Oh dear!

Even Aunty Samantha has a go in the Herald Sun in her piece: Time Tony Abbott had a good lie down. It begins: Tony Abbott celebrates his 55th birthday today. The Lodge for his 56th is probably top of the Liberal leader's wish list. But to get there, some of his mates reckon the best present for him would be to crawl back under the covers and go back to sleep. Poor Tony’s tired after a year of wildly swinging punches that mostly now miss their mark.

Malcolm Farr writes an incomprehensible piece linked somehow to the Spring Racing Carnival: On the track Tony Abbott’s odds shorten. Searching for meaning, I came across this: “Tony Abbott is no John Howard. Voters are not yet sure what he stands for, and he doesn’t have much time left to tell them. This doesn’t mean an Abbott-led Coalition would not win the next election. There could be issues and incidents over the coming12 months which wreck his bid for national leadership, but at the moment they are not obvious.

“The notion that the ALP is hauling back its primary vote to the point of making the next election a close contest is fanciful. Forget Newspoll’s 50/50 two-party preferred split.”

Coming from wise old Uncle Malcolm, I guess that will reassure poor Tony. He was supposed to be rejuvenated by a day at the races, but dwarfed as he was by his daughters in their mega stiletto heels, he did look so tiny. Never mind Tony, Uncle Malcolm is backing you still.

Writing in Business Spectator last week in Abbott’s now in real fiscal trouble, Rob Burgess asserted threateningly: “Comments from the Business Council and Australian Industry Group, published yesterday, look like a major headache for Tony Abbott.”, but in the same paper yesterday, Alister Drysdale, former senior adviser to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett writes in: Abbott's changing the sermon: ”A new Tony Abbott is emerging as the Gillard government regains electorate approval. Direct attacks are losing their impact and if the Coalition is to defeat Labor then considered policy debate must be its new weapon.”

Drysdale goes on: “There are tentative signs that Abbott is subtly changing. The smear aimed at Gillard over her long gone days at Slater and Gordon is now coming from the flaying female deputy, not from him. He’s less agitated and aggressive and involved in Question Time fracas – a small but notable change in political management. He’s attempting to come to grips with quiet speeches on issues of productivity and economic management.” Uncle Alister is relieved.

Later he writes: ”In the months to come, Gillard could still be easily tripped. The ALP could keep yabbering on about themselves…the forecast Budget surplus could melt away – a political disaster". But he offers Tony a word of caution: ”Then too, the polls could keep tightening and buoy the government’s political mission. They could even act as a catalyst for boldness in public policy.” Should the latter come about though, his advice for nephew Tony is simple – be bold!

This extraordinary bout of revisionism has been confined to the Fourth Estate where most of the Abbott ‘family’ dwells; the Fifth Estate remains resolutely of the view that the Leader of the Opposition is disintegrating inexorably.

Uncle Andrew tweeted yesterday morning that things were not as bad for Abbott as they might seem, but so far we have not heard from Uncle Dennis and Uncle Paul. No doubt they will become a second phalanx of reassurance for nephew Tony that all is not lost as he approaches the end-of-year recess. He needs a break, he needs to give his tired brain a rest along with his aching arms, he needs to get his mojo back, and if he does this, their child prodigy must surely win the prize he so richly deserves, one so cruelly denied him in 2010, one they all covet – Prime Ministership and all the clout and influence that goes with it, so important for any close knit, power-hungry 'family'.

Their child prodigy, now exposed as errant, needs all the propping up he can get, and his extended 'family' is already giving it to him in spades.

What do you think?

The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition

Just look at him in QT and during his pressers. Does he look like a happy and confident man? Is there a spring in his step? Why is his brow so often furrowed? Why does he so seldom smile? Does he look like the next PM in waiting?

Recall the cockiness he exhibited as he swaggered around factories, drove large trucks, operated machinery, stacked bananas at supermarkets, and kissed fish at fishmongers. Reflect on the hubris he showed as the polls rose spectacularly for the Coalition; remember the sly smile that lit up his craggy face after every poll. All gone now!

Something must be wrong. What is it? Is it his demeanour, his attitude, his behaviour, the way he looks, or even the way he walks? Or is it his policy positions on a number of issues? Perhaps it is all of the above.

On policy matters, he persists with his cobra-strike or python-squeeze or octopus-entangled carbon tax scaremongering although the predicted doom refuses to eventuate. At first persuaded that the sky might well fall in, then skeptical as it stayed in place, then jaded with the whole matter, and finally unconvinced in the face of contradictory data that put the lie to the scare campaign, the electorate has moved onto other matters. Because of this, and because his colleagues are uneasy about what now looks like a spectacular fizzer, the Opposition Leader has eased up on this a little. He now asks few questions himself in QT, his front bench is busy running a ‘disappearing surplus’ campaign, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is promoting a vicious resurrection of the tired old Slater & Gordon matter that has been settled years ago and again recently at PM Gillard’s mammoth press conference. Even the ‘turn back the boats’ mantra is losing its punch. There is nothing else. The grab bag of mantras is empty. And the bag of costed policies is bare. All there is left is a vacuum.

Until recently, it was only writers in the Fifth Estate that were pointing out that the vacuousness of the Leader of the Opposition, his nasty and at times vicious personality, the sexism he repeatedly exhibits, particularly directed towards our first female Prime Minister, and his spiteful behavior in the House and at sundry rallies and press conferences, made him wholly unsuitable to be leader of this nation.

Meanwhile the Fourth Estate continued with the charade that he was a shoo-in as the next PM, and that the real issue was by what vast number of seats he would win and how decimated Labor would be. All the leadership focus in the MSM was on the Gillard/Rudd ‘contest’; there was never a suggestion that the position of Leader of the Opposition was in jeopardy. How quickly things have changed.

On Insiders, a program where scarcely a word has ever been uttered that questioned the security of the position of the Opposition Leader, last Sunday one of the panelists, Mike Seccombe, acerbically summed up his feelings about the Opposition Leader. After an introduction by Barrie Cassidy who referred to the weight Dunaden will carry in the Melbourne Cup, Seccombe said:

”Tony Abbott is a weight for the Liberal Party – he is a handicap for the Party. I think he is being exposed as a man with severe character defects. Frankly, he has been exposed as a man with lack of judgement – the Alan Joneses and Cory Bernardis and people like that.

“And his foot-in-mouth episodes that keep on rolling on and on and on – either showing him to be extremely mean-spirited and bullying on the one hand if he meant it as Mark Riley said, or if he didn’t mean it, he’s a dope who can’t open his mouth without accidentally getting into trouble.”

“So I think Tony Abbott is on the slide; at the moment I don’t see that it’s going to stop – it just goes from bad to worse day by day.”

We had never heard such a condemnation before on that program.

Seccombe, a Fourth Estate journalist, left no doubt about his feelings when he wrote an article in The Global Mail later in the week. Titled The Pack Circles, he begins:

”Tony Abbott is looking a bit beaten down these days. He has been for a little while actually.

“People who watch these things closely – and that means almost everyone in this merciless place – are noticing and reacting.

“In the press gallery, that means lots of speculation over coffee, if not yet so much in print and on air, about who might replace him. Give it a couple more of those dreadful poll results showing souring public perceptions of the opposition leader, and he’ll be in their sights, just as Julia Gillard was a few months back.

“On Abbott’s own side of politics, it means the backbench becoming increasingly unruly in Question Time…On the opposition front bench, it means other senior people are lifting their aggression levels…

“It is the opposition leader’s own behaviour, though, that is the real sign that things have changed. It used to be that he would open the bowling and carry much of the attack in Question Time each day. Not now. This week, Abbott has let the burden of attack be carried by others…Hockey and Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison and the odd backbencher.”

Seccombe then described how Greg Combet had mocked the Leader of the Opposition about all the dire predictions he had made about the carbon tax that had not come about.

He concluded: Combet ”finished his answer with a suggestion that it was about time the opposition got a new leader. He suggested either Hockey or Turnbull and, just for laughs included a possible ‘roughie’, the colourless Kevin Andrews. “Get someone who can tell the truth,” he snarled.”

“Well, there was hubbub. The government benches roared with amusement. The opposition benches roared with outrage.

“But Tony Abbott? He made no interjection. He made no eye contact. He stared fixedly at some papers in his lap.”

Has there been such a disparaging piece in the Fourth Estate? Yet, there has been more.

Last weekend, in News Limited’s The Weekend Australian no less a Coalition sycophant than Peter van Onselen gave the Opposition Leader a significant spray in Is this the turning point. He begins:

”Has the Gillard Labor government turned the corner? The evidence is mounting that Julia Gillard's political fortunes are improving. Whether these improvements morph into political salvation will take time to assess. There could be as long as 12 months to go before the next federal election is called, and the campaign itself can change the political climate significantly if the contest is close enough going in.”

Later he says: ”History therefore dictates that Abbott must find a way to arrest the decline in his party's primary vote, which may require pivoting from his deliberately negative style of campaigning.”

He concludes: ”In 1993 Abbott was press secretary to John Hewson, who lost what came to be dubbed as an unloseable election. If Abbott doesn't win next year's election he, too, will go down in history as having lost such a contest.”

We are yet to see similar warnings from Dennis Shanahan, Paul Kelly, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt!

But Michelle Grattan is beginning to have doubts. In Headaches for Abbott as tactics falter, she talks about polls, dissension in the ranks, too many tactics, some flawed, and not enough strategy, and ends with characteristic Grattan reassurance: ”Abbott doesn't need to push the panic button, but unless the final polls for the year bring some good news for him, there will be pressure for serious stocktaking over Christmas.”

There is still more from the Fourth Estate. It was in The Courier-Mail that Steven Scott wrote Something in the way he moves - Tony Abbott's swagger is turning off voters

”It's the swagger. That's the reason most frequently given by people in focus groups about why they do not like Tony Abbott.

“To single out the Opposition Leader's rolling gait for criticism may seem superficial or even unfair, but it's what this symbolises for many swinging voters that has Coalition strategists worried.

“To those uncommitted voters whose views are gold to political parties, the cringe factor that comes when they think about Abbott's confident strut is followed swiftly with a series of negative impressions - arrogant, cocky, angry.

“In what is now a clear trend, Labor's support is slowly improving and the Coalition's is falling. Satisfaction ratings for Abbott are on a continual slide.

"Tony has got a perception problem everywhere," one senior Coalition figure says of the impressions voters have of the Opposition Leader. "It's the way he walks sometimes ... the swagger."

“The Opposition is still on track to win the next election, but this is no longer looking as easy a task as it did only months ago. Many in the Coalition camp are starting to fret and a lot of their concern is directed at the man who helped get them into a winning position in the first place - Abbott.

“There is no suggestion that Abbott will face a leadership challenge. Even some of his toughest critics within the party concede leadership talk would cruel the Coalition's chances at the next election.

“But if Abbott's polling does not improve, this position could change.”

It already is. But Scott could not bring himself to write off the Opposition Leader, leaving himself a fall back position: “The Opposition is still on track to win the next election…” and “There is no suggestion that Abbott will face a leadership challenge.” I’m sure that as the momentum against the Opposition Leader builds, we will see more of this ‘backing the horse both ways’.

In a report in ABC News on the debate on the wheat deregulation bill, the previous Speaker, Peter Slipper was quoted. Although few might give much credence to his views, here is what the report said:

”Former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper has lashed out at Coalition MPs, accusing them of abandoning their free market principles by opposing Labor's wheat deregulation bill.

“Mr Slipper, now an independent MP, voted with the Government, which won the vote 70-67.

“He says deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop and other Opposition MPs are hypocrites because they favour wheat deregulation but are voting the other way to avoid a fight with the Nationals. I suspect many of them will vote with a heavy heart with the Opposition, because there are many people on this side of the house who support the Government's intentions," he said.

"This is all about preserving the flawed and fatal and terminal leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, the Member for Warringah."

"I suppose you have to admire the Deputy Leader of the Opposition because she's supporting her leader - after all, she's supported how many leaders? How many leaders has she been deputy to?

"I find it abhorrent that the deputy Leader of the Opposition is prepared to say it's important to defeat the Government's legislation, but not on any manner of principle."

I’m sure Slipper felt much better after that spray.

On a more serious note, the business community is expressing concern at Coalition policies. Writing in Business Spectator Rob Burgess begins his article Abbott’s now in real fiscal trouble with:

“Comments from the Business Council and Australian Industry Group, published yesterday, look like a major headache for Tony Abbott.”

Burgess goes on to say that both groups, neither of which is a fan of big government, are expressing concern about Labor’s severe spending cuts to achieve a budget surplus. Likewise, they are concerned at the even more extreme cuts proposed by the Coalition.

He continues: ”The BCA and AiG comments put a tiny bit of pressure on the government, and a massive amount of pressure on the coalition, which plans to do away with the carbon tax, mining tax (not that it appears to be worth a cent), maintain lower-income tax cuts and increases in the family tax benefit and pension (which the carbon tax pays for), and instead balance the budget through more extreme expenditure slashing.”

Burgess concludes: ”In short, team-Abbott is going to have to do some rapid rethinking of its plans before an election is called…there is time for the coalition to work out how to massage the revenue side of the federal budget to bring it into balance. Simply slashing public spending no longer looks like an option.”

So it’s not just the Opposition Leader’s behavior that irks, it’s his policies too.

Turning now to the Fifth Estate, writing in a piece: Sweetest of them all: how Julia Gillard won the 2013 election in The Conversation, William Bowe of Poll Bludger fame, says this:

“From the time the carbon tax policy was unveiled in February 2011 until its implementation on July 1, the unchallenged consensus of the Canberra press gallery was that a Tony Abbott prime ministership was simply a matter of time…

“Not for the first time though, the self-confidence of political commentators, together with the utility of mid-term polling as a pointer to outcomes at long range, has been shown to have been greatly exaggerated.”

He went on to describe what seats Labor needed to win in 2103, and how seriously possible that was.

In Abbott’s Doubly Whammy in Archies Archive, the author outlines a series of issues where there is dissension in Liberal ranks over policy issues, one serious one being the wheat deregulation matter mentioned above, where Julie Bishop unsuccessfully assumed the role of enforcer to keep the Liberal Party members together to shore up the Leader’s position.

He concludes: ”Reality is finally seeping into the Federal Liberal Party and it is difficult to see Tony Abbott surviving the swirling storm of dissent which is forming within the Liberal Vacuum Flask.”

In an article Can ‘Dr. No’ become ‘Mr. Yes’? in Open Fire, the author begins:

”As the Australian public continue to tire of ‘Dr. No’ and his parties Pythonesque contradiction of the ALP government, the challenge, with less than twelve months until the election, is can Abbott move from ‘Dr. No,’ telling us daily what he is against – carbon tax, gay people, asylum seekers, carbon tax, any taxes, carbon tax and then the carbon tax, to become ‘Mr. Yes’ and reveal what he and the Liberals stand for?”

Later he says: ”The contemporary image of Tony Abbott, with the ALP applying the brushstrokes, is of a sexist, immoral, bully boy. An image Abbott has done much to assist with over the years. Most recently by using the toxic ‘dying of shame’ phrase while in parliament, only days after…Alan Jones muttered it in yet another display of his inhumanity. For that gaffe there was no escape for Abbott, he was either a cunning, sly asshole looking to hurt Julia Gillard personally or such a buffoon as to not consider the implications of using such a phrase. Whatever the case, he made his bed, or probably his wife did, and he must now lay in it.”

In Here Come The Polls! on New Matilda Ben Eltham says:

“…the party enjoying the big lead gets a boost in positive coverage. Little scrutiny is applied to their various statements. The election result can seem almost pre-ordained.

“This is the position Labor has found itself in for most of 2011 and 2012, as poll after poll showed a government on the ropes. It was particularly marked around coverage of the carbon tax, which the opinion poll data showed was very unpopular. In contrast, Tony Abbott and the Opposition got a fairly easy ride, and plenty of coverage every time they decided to attack the government on carbon.

“But in recent weeks, a ray of light has glinted. A number of recent polls have shown Labor closing the gap. The most recent Newspoll actually had Labor at parity. The latest Nielsen has Labor on 48-52. Any way you look at it, Labor is suddenly competitive again.”

Later Eltham says: Attention now turns to the Liberal Party, with press gallery leader Phil Coorey reporting today that "several Liberal MPs" had told him that "Labor’s recovery was now clearly a trend and Mr Abbott needed to broaden his approach beyond attacking the carbon tax."

A post in Aussiepollies discusses recent poll results and concludes:

“The polls are undoubtedly getting closer, but how close and how real the narrowing of margins is remains unclear. It is still on the naughty side to be talking of leadership change in the Opposition despite results being less assured. What is almost without doubt is the need for a shift in the focus of Coalition strategy.”

Writing in The Opinion Bruce Haigh begins his piece Abbott on the edge:

”David Marr put the cat amongst the pigeons with his Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott.

“Abbott would have us believe that he has changed since his days at university, when by Marr’s account he was an insufferable bully and misogynist, a word much used in relation to Abbott, particularly these days. In my experience people change little in essence from the time at their alma mater to middle age, particularly politicians. They might develop a façade of gravitas, but even that has escaped Abbott. Beazley, Dawkins and McMullan changed little over the years from when I knew them at the University of Western Australia to the end of their political careers, except perhaps Beazley who honed the depth and breadth of his bombast.

“Chances are that Abbott has also changed very little. Anger is a by-product of his ruthless, ‘whatever it takes’, ambition. Wed this to his conservative Christian beliefs and he becomes a crusader, using religion as a shield from criticism and to mask his real persona, or so he thinks. He is not trusted and he is not liked, particularly by women, but also by a lot of men who distrust his superficiality.”

Let’s finish with a little delectable humour from Mike Seccombe writing in The Global Mail in an article: Bringing the house down. Having prefaced his story with reference to the great rhetorical turns of Paul Keating, he recounted Greg Combet’s ripostes this week in QT:

On Wednesday Combet riffed on the carbon tax price effect on staples like milk and cereal. On Thursday he chose as his subject the effect of the tax on Australia’s spring racing carnival.

“Having noted that Abbott had predicted the carbon tax was a threat to “the whole Australian way of life”, Combet hastened to assure racing fans that there was no cause for alarm.

“Treasury modelling showed the carbon price impact on sport and recreation will be only 0.3 per cent, or around 20 cents a week,” he said.

“Fashion at Flemington [the style slice of Melbourne’s track], it’s going to be okay because last week’s CPI [consumer price index, the measure of inflation] showed women’s clothing… the prices actually fell by 0.2 per cent in the September quarter.”

“What people who cared about racing needed to understand, he continued, was that Abbott’s scare campaign on the tax was ‘the biggest shakedown’ since the Fine Cotton affair in 1984.

“And the ring in that day was called Bold Personality… and that’s all we’ve had.”

“It was time for the ‘Liberal Party stewards’ to intervene and consider a substitution, he suggested, and offered a form guide of alternative Liberal leaders.

“One time leader of the Opposition, Goldman Sachs man and renowned barrister Malcolm Turnbull? A classy thoroughbred if ever there’s been one. He was badly checked by the Member for Warringah [Abbott, who deposed him] in the 2009 race.”

“Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey – who was absent, having just been chucked out for interjecting? He’s hungry for a win but he’s demonstrated yet again today that he’s not up to Group One racing level.”

“What about deputy leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop? Three times runner up. Surely a chance at last.”

“And Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison had promise but for the fact that he was spooked by foreign horses.

“It was a good riff. Not quite Keating perhaps, but it had the same effect: even the Opposition benches laughed, Malcolm Turnbull appearing particularly amused.

“Not as amused as Julia Gillard, though. One gets the feeling she is looking forward to further mirth at the expense of the Carbon Tax scare campaign.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Bowers and The Global Mail

When a man becomes an object of ridicule, the end must be nigh!

Need I say any more? The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition continues apace. It shows. More and more are noticing.

The Leader of the Opposition, Anthony John “Tony” Abbott.
Photo courtesy of Mike Bowers and The Global Mail

What do you think?

Can our ABC resuscitate our political media?

Opinion within the Fifth Estate about the state of the political media in the Fourth Estate is virtually unanimous. There is an almost undivided view that in this country, and in many others, much of the print media is incompetent and malevolent in the way it reports political events, that in places it is corrupt, and in the case of the Murdoch media, subjugated to the will of the proprietor. The previous piece: The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us argued this case; the responses highlighted not just agreement, but also the deep dismay that those who commented felt at this state of affairs.

Perhaps even more dismay was expressed about the way in which the ABC had often followed the commercial media line, even at times echoing its headlines and stories, virtually word for word, and too often devoid of any serious analysis of the newsworthiness of the stories, their veracity and their meaning. Some who commented felt affronted by the apparent acquiescence of the ABC to the commercial line, when it is supposed to be an independent public broadcaster, funded from the public purse. There was consternation that it resembled a Murdoch clone, that it had lost its identity, and with it much of its independence.

Only the sightless could believe that the commercial media, and in particular the News Limited media, would be likely to change their tune and adopt a more balanced approached to politics. Only the sightless would be unable to see that News Limited media are running an explicit political agenda, one that is unlikely to change unless something radical occurs.

News Limited is intent on the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacing of it with a Coalition one, and to ‘the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box’. No objective analysis of News Limited’s behaviour could lead to any other conclusion. And it’s no recent thing. Right back to some of the radical measures Labor took to counter the ill effects of the GFC: the HIP and the BER, News Limited, and particularly its flagship The Australian, has run a virulent and disingenuous campaign of denigration against these measures. It has ridiculed almost everything Labor has enacted; has labelled it incompetent and fiscally reckless; has rebuked, mocked and vilified its leaders, particularly its first female leader; and has misrepresented Labor’s intentions and actions with strident and at times vicious headlines, uncomplimentary photographs and disgusting cartoons. We know the Murdoch agenda, we know compliance with that agenda is required of Murdoch’s men, and we see the result day after day in the writings of Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Dennis Shanahan, Peter van Onselen, Chris Kenny, even Paul Kelly, and many others.

We have looked to Fairfax to counterbalance News Limited, but with the likes of Michelle Grattan, Peter Hartcher, and at times the more moderate Phillip Coorey replicating News Limited’s line, we have largely lost confidence there too. Fortunately, Fairfax still has Peter Martin, Ross Gittins, Brian Toohey and of course Laura Tingle, but with Michael Stutchbury, ex The Australian now at the helm of The Australian Financial Review, it must be hard for writers there to buck his anti-Gillard, anti-Labor orientation.

While we in the Fifth Estate ought never to give up, even on an outfit as recalcitrant as News Limited, with the limited resources we have we need to direct our energies in more promising directions, and the most promising of those seems to be our ABC. It may be the counter to the tsunami of commentary adverse to the Government that comes from the commercial media day after day.

It is worth pausing to ask what it is that we ought to expect from the political media. In my view, political reporters and commentators, and particularly the Canberra Press Gallery that is so close to the action, has a particular responsibility, an onerous one, to inform the electorate about what is happening politically, what the issues are, and what they mean for us. They ought to be comparing and contrasting opposing policies and costings. Their offerings should be fact-based, well argued, balanced, and free of bias, and if an opinion is offered, it ought to be similarly based. But what do we get?

We get political ‘news’ dressed up in sensational clothes; we get scoops and exclusives, ’gotchas’, ‘rule in rule out’ games, he/she was ‘forced to defend’ rhetoric, and of course a plethora of ‘scandals’, so long as they are on the Labor side. Whatever else it is, this ‘news’ must be controversial, conflict-driven, lurid, entertaining, and of course short and to the point, even if inaccurate, so as not to overrun the perceived short attention span of the consumers. The default position is triviality; thoughtful analysis is relegated to less popular time slots, or less read newspaper sections.

The purpose of this piece is to suggest that we direct our attention to our ABC, with the intent of stiffening its spine, rebalancing its coverage, and re-focussing its vision. My question is: Can the ABC resuscitate our moribund and feckless media? Can it bring about changes in its commercial competitors by the sheer force of its professionalism and the strength of its determination to promulgate to the electorate accurate facts and figures, well reasoned analysis, sound guidance and helpful insights?

If the ABC were to assume a dominant, rather than a submissive role hanging onto the coattails of the commercial side, if it were to exhibit outstanding professionalism, if it were to set the standard for political reporting we deserve, if it were to divorce itself from the Canberra Press Gallery echo chamber where groupthink reigns supreme, might it not put pressure on its commercial rivals? Might that not shame them into performing better? Maybe not, but it’s worth a try.

But the ABC is certainly not without fault, and it is not yet homogenous. Some sectors perform well, others poorly; some are balanced, some imperceptibly so. There is hope though that if all its sections could perform well, if balance could be restored, it might be the agent to give mouth to mouth to a moribund commercial political media. It is not an exaggeration to view the commercial media as moribund, but still susceptible to well placed resuscitation.

Balance is a particular concern of ABC users. Writing on Independent Australia, David Horton pens a must-read: Open letter to ABC managing director Mark Scott. It begins:

”Dear Mark Scott,

“About this “balance” thing…

“I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

“The IPA is infesting every ABC outlet with its Libertarian Free Market ideology in the service of secret Business business. What are they providing “balance” for? Have there been Marxist economists daily on the ABC I have somehow missed? Even Keynesian economists? Er…no. Professor Sloan is on every week instead. Who is she “balancing”?

“What about the appearance of Peter Reith every week? A full essay on The Drum plus other live appearances. Who is he balancing? Gerard Henderson, Piers Akerman, Nikki Sava? Has there been a rash of appearances by Trotskyists, Socialist Alliance, Left Wing unionists who have escaped my notice?

“Do you really not see that the occasional appearance of, say, a Green MP, or someone from The Australia Institute, doesn’t actually match in weight the regular appearance of those mentioned above, so regular they might as well be on staff, and certainly gain the apparent credibility of being so.

There is more here that you would enjoy reading.

Remember, it was Mark Scott who took notice of Greg Jericho, when he wrote a piece on Grog’s Gamut complaining about the poor quality of reporting of the 2010 election campaign. Scott discussed Greg’s concern with his executives and brought it to a conference for discussion. As we don’t have inside access to the ABC, we can’t know what changes Greg’s piece brought about, but Scott certainly did notice it.

Why do I see the ABC as a potential remedy to the widespread problem of incompetent political commentary by a moribund media?

Mark Scott’s seeming willingness to listen and learn encourages optimism, and we all know that the ABC can and does produce informative and incisive political programs.

Let’s recall some exemplary events in the ABC’s political life. Shall we ever forget that classic interview in May 2010 by Kerry O’Brien of Tony Abbott about Abbott’s approach to the truth? Refresh your memory by revisiting this YouTube clip. Remember Leigh Sales’ interview with Abbott on 22 August of this year over BHP Billiton’s announcement about its postponement of its Olympic Dam project. These were two occasions when the Opposition Leader was pinned down over statements that were shown to be disingenuous and deceitful. Abbott looked embarrassed, harassed and angry, and showed how pitifully inadequate he was as Leader of the Opposition.

We have to go back only to yesterday’s Insiders to see how Barrie Cassidy handled Joe Hockey and his extravagant utterances about the devastating effects of the mining tax on the miners; his criticism of monthly payments of company tax; his likening of the reduction of the baby bonus to $3000 for the second and subsequent children to the Chinese birth control system, calling the bonus ‘a penalty’; and his use of the term ‘flat-lining’ to describe Australia’s 3% per annum growth rate. Hockey blustered and bumbled his way through the interview, appeared outmaneuvered, was at times rambling, and looked foolish throughout. Hockey would be wise to watch his words more carefully, in lieu of shooting off his mouth.

In case you are thinking that I’m focussing only on interviews with Opposition members, let’s not forget the many times PM Gillard, Treasurer Swan, and many other Government ministers have been put under the hammer by Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann on ABC TV, and Jon Faine, Rafael Epstein, Sabra Lane, Samantha Hawley and Alexandra Kirk on radio. There have been so many that we can’t keep count.

What I’m saying is that ABC interviewers can be incisive and insistent; they can dig out the truth and expose disingenuousness. But this is not consistently the case.

As an example of inconsistency, let’s look at interviews by Chris Uhlmann. Recall his impertinent interview of PM Gillard on 9 May that was caustically critiqued by Paul Keating in The Drum Opinion, which because it was published without vetting, evoked an angry rebuttal by Bruce Belsham, Head of ABC Current Affairs, who felt the need to come out in robust defence of “one of this country's best political journalists and interviewers”. Read it here.

Contrast that tough interview with his soft interview of Tony Abbott about the NT intervention where all the questions were easy and facilitatory. Now look at how Uhlmann treated Bob Brown, or should I say assailed him? Uhlmann needs to reflect on his evenhandedness in interviews and not let what appear to be partisan biases influence them.

Balance in the ABC is essential. After all the sprays that Julia Gillard has been given by the likes of Piers Akerman, Michael Stutchbury and Nikki Sava on Insiders, it was a salutary example of balance yesterday to hear Mike Seccombe giving Tony Abbott the biggest spray I have ever heard on that program. Listen to it here.

Another example of balanced discourse is the fora that are conducted regularly on The World Today. Just last Friday, Ashley Hall moderated a discussion between three experts on natural disaster management titled: Debate asks whether Australia can manage natural disasters better. You can read the transcript and listen to it here. Such debates are informative, balanced and absorbing.

This is what we want in our political debates – reliable and verifiable evidence, honestly and completely presented, reasoned argument, logical conclusions, sound advice and comparison of the policy options being offered. Instead, what we usually get is biased rhetoric, flawed and incomplete information, loud argument, talking over each other, and inconclusive outcomes. The regular Lateline Friday ‘debates’ between opposing politicians are a gross example of this. They are intellectually valueless; all they provide is coarse ‘entertainment’ for those with the stomach. They ought to be scrapped and proper debate between experts substituted.

So my proposition is that as the ABC is capable of conducting demanding and balanced interviews of politicians across the political spectrum, although it does not universally do so, and as it is able to provide valid and reliable information and balanced commentary when it chooses, the idea that the ABC might assume a more dominant role becomes compelling as the rest of the media deteriorates.

This idea was captured in The ABC Plays Monopoly by Bernard Lagan on October 24 in The Global Mail the link to which was provided by regular blogger 2353.

It begins: “Australian news consumers are confronting new paywalls all over the place – but it’s all free at the ABC, where the national broadcaster is quietly combining the full force of its television, radio and digital news teams for one hugely ambitious online market grab.

“With Australia’s high-brow newspaper publisher, Fairfax Media, heading for its knees, commercial broadcaster Network Ten about to shed one third of its journalists and the Nine Network now in the hands of unforgiving US hedge funds, who is going to emerge as the titan of influence and reach in the Australian media?

“The likely answer is your ABC.”

Lagan continues: “There is a news revolution going on within Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, likely to reveal itself early next year when the ABC re-launches its unloved digital news arm, seeking the online audience share ABC bosses believe it should command. The organisation has rich resources; some 1,000 people work directly for the ABC’s television, radio and online news – about 20 per cent of the corporation’s employees. And many more will soon be contributing to the ABC’s online news sites, under the corporation’s plan to follow the BBC, CNN and to some extent America’s public radio network NPR, and have its journalists working across multiple platforms.

“Not only do the changes herald renewed efforts by the ABC to garner mass audiences for its online news sites – they come at the worst possible time for Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age broadsheet newspapers. Now the online news competition for Fairfax – and for News Ltd’s The Australian, which moved to a pay-for-access system in October 2011 – will be increasingly from the ABC, as it puts more resources into online news and produces a re-designed more user-friendly website. Unhappily for Fairfax and News Ltd, all of the ABC’s expanded content will continue to be free.”

Lagan continues: ”While the ABC is coy about its ambitions on the ratings tables, its newly appointed head of news content, Gaven Morris, the creator of the ABC’s highly successful around-the-clock TV news channel ABC News 24, wants a visit to ABC online to become a daily habit for news followers. “There is a real opportunity for us [online ABC news] to be much more of a habit for people than we have been,” says Morris in an interview with The Global Mail.”

“Says Kate Torney, the ABC’s director of news: “The ABC has always evolved to meet audience needs, whether it be through the introduction of television or more recently with online. I see enormous opportunities to improve the ABC’s digital news service and to make sure audiences can access their news on devices of their choice.”

“Head of ABC News 24 and News Online Gaven Morris says that aside from the redesign of the ABC’s online news sites, they will also provide more content, and it will be more varied and more rapidly produced…the ABC plans to increase the number of reporters working on stories of national impact, that can be run in all states on radio, television and especially online.

“The ABC will establish…a central production desk, staffed around the clock. It will package national and international stories from both the ABC’s staff and external news agencies for television and radio, and produce text-based stories for the ABC’s online news sites, as well as for social-media sites.”

The article continues: "So has the ABC calculated that early next year – when users can expect the arrival of the Fairfax paywalls – offers the best moment for the public broadcaster to capture the online audience and lure it away from Fairfax online? While Fairfax, thus far, has been relatively subdued in its response to the ABC’s expansion into further online territory, News Ltd’s Australian CEO Kim Williams – once an ABC executive himself – has not held back." He expressed the same aggressive antagonism to the ABC as did Rupert and James Murdoch towards the BBC!

Citing the changed habits of Australians whereby 23 per cent of Australians now name online as their main source of news, and 88 per cent of all Australian Internet users access news online, and more than half of Australian smart phone users regularly use their phone to stay informed of news updates, the ABC believes it is merely following its audience online and maintains that ‘its overriding obligation is to provide news, information and entertainment to all Australians’.

This absorbing article concludes: "ABC executives say the broadcaster’s experience with the two-year-old rolling news channel ABC24 has exposed to it a much pacier news culture – ideal for online. The digital television channel changed the ABC's slow-moving schedule with an energy they now aim to translate to online…" We wish them every success.

So there it is. As the commercial media wilt, as they carry out their role as political commentators less and less professionally, it seems an ideal time for our ABC to set a new standard for political reporting, to show how it should be done, to do it in a balanced way, to take the initiative.

This would elevate political commentary to its proper level, would furnish the electorate with a reliable source of information and guidance, and at the same time might resuscitate the seemingly moribund commercial media, might energize it to begin reporting politics as it always should have done.

What to you think?

The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us

In just twelve months time, voters will be asked to choose between a Gillard Labor Government and an Abbott-led Coalition Government. How will they choose? How will they know how to choose? What information, what analysis will they have to make their choice? How will they obtain it? Who will provide it? The answers are unknown. Yet they ought to be. The nation’s mainstream media ought to be at least one of the conduits, but it is not. And it shows no signs of becoming so. Folks, this is serious – this is tragic.

It would not be so tragic if the two main parties were much the same, but we know they are not. The differences are profound, radical and nation-breaking.

Why is it that we lack what we need to make an informed and rational decision about who should govern our nation for the following three years? The answer is obvious – we are afflicted with a largely incompetent and often malevolent mainstream media. It’s a sad and perilous state of affairs.

In case you think this is just the opinion of a blogger in the Fifth Estate disillusioned with the MSM, read what Mark Textor, pollster and past Liberal Party campaign adviser says in an article in the AFR Commentariat leaves voters short on facts. He begins: ”… these days we do not just live in a world dominated by perceptions, but of perceptions of perceptions. An entire class exists to tell us what voters and consumers are thinking. Or at least what they think voters are thinking. Worse, they add a level of political and consumer analysis to predict how decision makers will then react to imagined changes in that thinking and in turn how voters may react. Confused? Imagine being an ordinary voter.”

Later Textor says: ”Voters want the real experts talking to them. They don’t want yet more opinions of opinions. The traditional media’s downward spiral of playing their online opponents’ game of quick and dirty reporting has undervalued investment in investigation of issue content, such as tasking a staff reporter to a story about hospital health, seeking a diverse range of health experts with insights and potential solutions for voters to weigh up. These would be useful signposts to understanding in the slow lane. But the absence of this truly expert analysis means voters lack basic information they need to form considered opinions”, and later still he says: ”Voters do expect the media to tell them if they are being misled. They are now in desperate need of compelling primary information to show what the truth is.” Indeed!

Mr Denmore was on the same theme in his piece Contesting the News where he says: ”The 'institutionalised' press - as traditionally defined - is finding itself less at the middle of things and more at the margin. New social media allows people to tailor and define news according to their own cultural norms, not those of an exclusive cadre.” His piece is a good read.

Let’s analyse then what we’ve got and propose what we deserve.

The Fourth Estate is not homogeneous. Like in most institutions, occupants are distributed along a spectrum, the ubiquitous bell-shaped curve. The curve of which I speak might be termed ‘the balance curve’, where at the extreme left of the curve are the most unbalanced comments, whereas at the extreme right are the most balanced.

But this curve in not the normal distribution curve, with equal portions each side on the middle. It is a skewed curve, with much of the Fourth Estate clustered at the extremely unbalanced end, and relatively few at the other extremity, the well-balanced end. Let me elaborate.

On Friday last, Australia was voted a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council by a substantial majority. It was a major victory for our nation, and for those who had canvassed for it for many years. It opened opportunities for Australia to take its place as a middle-order nation within a group that deals with the world’s most difficult, dangerous and intractable problems. It gave Australia a chance to exercise its influence and enhance its geopolitical status and its economic situation. It showed in what high regard Australia is held by the 140 nations that voted for it. All in all it was a colourful feather in Australia’s hat, and those who brought it about. Consumers of our mainstream media might have expected it to give extensive coverage to such a momentous event, the gaining of a UN seat after 26 years, but no, it received scant attention.

Admittedly the announcement came too late for the print media on Friday, but the next day, the beginning of a weekend, would have been an ideal time to give readers an account of how it all came about and its implications for our country. So how did the MSM handle this important event?

A look at the Front Pages with which Lyn supplies us, reveals precious little on Saturday or Sunday that I could see.

What about that iconic opinion-leader The Australian – Heart of the Nation? On the front page of The Weekend Australian there was a 200 word piece that echoed Bob Carr’s words about Syria: Wasting no time, Carr raises Syria with UN that was elaborated on page 6. There, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan began his erudite opinion with: “There is one overwhelming benefit to having won a temporary seat on the UN Security Council: we won’t have to go through this tawdry, ridiculous business again for at least another 10 or 15 years”. Great endorsement! Later he says: ”If Labor stays in office, it will probably feel the need to honour all the pledges it made to win this tawdry bauble”. He then critiques PM Gillard’s travel in Southeast Asia as ‘very weak’, queries the cost of the seat, and at the end finally hands out a sliver of credit: ”Nonetheless, Carr deserves congratulations for the professionalism and effectiveness of his lobbying in recent months”. But choking on this concession, he ends with sarcasm: “We now take our place among global giants: Luxemberg and Rwanda”. So this is The Australian newspaper’s prime acknowledgement from its expert in foreign affairs – nasty and pathetic.

One can sense Dennis Shanahan almost gagging as he writes: ”After a hectic series of trips overseas and basking in the glow of victory for gaining a seat on the UN Security Council, Julia Gillard has moved to repair some self-inflicted damage to her image as an international diplomat”. To what could he be referring? To her ‘fall’ in India? No, he was harking back to her statement when she became PM two years ago that ‘foreign policy was not one of her passions’. He could have commented how well she had done in the face of that initial concession, but Dennis could never bring himself to do that, could he?

There were also a couple of short pieces in The Weekend Australian about the cost of the seat and the expectations that would be placed on Gary Quinlan, our UN Ambassador.

The editorial was more generous, calling Abbott ‘churlish’ for quibbling about the cost, but still managing to draw Rwanda’s election into the commentary ‘to put our win in perspective’. Unadulterated commendation was too much for our editor. He made up for any praise with two further editorials, one criticizing Labor for berating Tony Abbott for not raising his ‘tow back the boats’ policy with the Indonesian President, and another on The perils of stiletto politics, another tilt at that ever-so-misused word: ‘misogyny’.

What about The Australian’s Inquirer where learned opinion is offered by ‘gurus’? First, there was nothing at all from guru-in-chief Paul Kelly. In fact there was nothing else on the subject.

Peter van Onselen had a nasty article Rudd was the victim of an unimpressive triumvirate – Julia Gillard’s biggest supporters are also Labor’s worst performers, referring to Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon, who also cops plenty of stick from Dennis Shanahan in Roxon crosses the line – The Attorney General is under fire for her handling of the Ashby-Slipper case, where he really lets fly after his concession in his other piece that Julia Gillard had had a success. Ross Fitzgerald predictably writes a critical article about the Government, Christian Kerr rehashes the misogyny debate in his usual ugly style, and Chris (not Mark) Kenny turns his nasty pen against John McTernan, Julia Gillard’s new Scottish media adviser, who is also featured in the lead piece by Tom Dusevic.

I include this tedious detail to demonstrate what we are getting from one of Australia’s most influential broadsheets. All in all it’s a lamentable attempt at coverage of Australia’s laudable success at the UN. Negative articles, caustic comment, and nasty rhetoric heavily counterbalance what few complimentary words are offered for this success.

Perhaps this News Limited response is more understandable when one reads Rupert Murdoch’s tweet: ”Big deal! Australia gets temporary non-veto seat on Security Council. Cost big fortune in foreign aid all over the place. No Aussies care”. Uncle Rupert hath spoken – all journalists fall into line. Not just pathetic – dangerous.

The contrast with Fairfax print media is stark. The Age/SMH had a short piece on the front page, a supportive editorial, a long and generally supportive piece by Paul McGeogh and Daniel Flitton in the Insight section, and a positive article by Phil Coorey in the SMH, who took a crack at Abbott’s churlishness. There was a positive opinion piece by Jeni Whalan in The Canberra Times, and Tony Walker wrote a balanced piece in the Australian Financial Review.

There was another contrast, and it was in The Australian. There, George Megalogenis had two articles, one where he lauded Julia Gillard’s ‘sexism and misogyny’ address in parliament, and another titled: Let the debate on our nation’s future begin, a fine exposition, where he mentioned an initiative by The Australian: its regular economic and social outlook conference with the Melbourne Institute that will be held on November 1 and 2 with the theme: Securing the Future: How Australia Can Thrive in a Volatile World. He referred to an accompanying article by John Mullen, chief executive of Asciano and a director of Telstra, titled: Embrace change or we risk being left behind, that addressed the need to accept the reality of social media in the workplace, which is the opening article for this initiative. Both articles were great reading – informative and well written – just what we need to understand some of the complexities of contemporary commerce and industry, as well as the associated economics and politics.

If The Australian can provide quality like this, why do they dish up the nasty, adversarial and malevolent material we read day after day? Ask Rupert Murdoch.

Let’s for a moment look at the purveyors of this malignant rhetoric. Again, they are distributed on a bell-shaped curve.

At one end there is a large group of journalists that are unashamed Coalition sycophants. There is no intent among any of them to present the facts in a balanced way. Their intent is to present facts, and the opinions based on them, in a selective way, incomplete, distorted, and sometimes downright dishonestly. Disingenuousness is their stock in trade. They know it and they don’t care. The journalists who live in this extreme space are not worth reading at all, except of course if your biases and prejudices coincide with theirs, and you want them reinforced or confirmed. Writers like Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Christopher Pearson, Chris Kenny, Michael Stutchbury, Christian Kerr, Peter van Onselen, and shock jocks like Alan Jones and Ray Hadley attract those who already share their views. For anyone wanting balanced, fact driven, logically argued analyses, reading what they write or listening to what they say, is not just worthless, it is dangerously misleading. It is no different from that dispensed by authoritarian regimes that exercise thought-control, George Orwell style. What’s more they will never change.

It is fruitless debating whether they really believe what they write or say, or whether they are consciously manipulating public opinion for ideological or commercial purposes. It makes no difference – they are perverting the truth, the very truth that voters need to rationally select the next government. They are set on this path and will not deviate. Nothing anyone can say or do will change them. They want PM Gillard and her Government gone, and instead, an Abbott Government. They must be ignored. There is no other way.

Moving a little closer to the middle of the curve is a more sinister group, sinister because they emit a superficial plausibility, plausibility not matched by their actual performance. I’m referring to the so-called gurus, such as Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, journalists who have an established reputation upon which they rely to have their writings read.

Kelly in particular has a highbrow turn of phrase that impresses. He is fond of making predictions, writes with pseudo-wisdom, and coins his own peculiar phrases. Readers could be excused for taking his bait hook, line and sinker. It is only when one asks what he means by his favourite clichés: ‘narrative’, ‘vision’, what someone ‘stands for’, and ‘lack of judgement’, that the superficiality of his writing becomes apparent. I have never read his definition of these words, or seen his examples of them. They are just high sounding Kelly phrases that impress, but fail to inform. Moreover, Kelly is clearly an advocate for the Coalition and its current leader. Read any recent piece and argue that it is balanced, factually accurate and well reasoned. You can’t.

Grattan is the doyen of Fairfax, yet her recent ramblings leave readers mystified about her meaning. She seems to have resorted to cub reporter style ‘he says, she says’ reporting. Once capable of balance, her palpable dislike of Julia Gillard now pushes her into opposition to the PM, and, albeit sometimes reluctantly, into support of the alternative. She can be ever so acerbic towards the PM, but ever so mild when writing about Tony Abbott, so understanding of his foibles, so accommodating of his mistakes, his gaffes and his errors of judgement. She would fume at the suggestion that she was an Abbott acolyte, but if she writes like an acolyte, talks like an acolyte…

Hartcher is an enigma. He writes well. I was impressed by the quality of his information-packed book: The Sweet Spot, a veritable goldmine of useful facts and figures and well-reasoned argument. But it is his visceral dislike of Julia Gillard and his contemporary preference for Kevin Rudd, which distorts his columns. This was apparent in his book. Any opportunity that presents to him to take a dig at the PM is never rejected. Like Paul Kelly, he has an authoritative air about him; he clearly seeks guru status, and like Kelly seems to believe this is obtainable by pontification.

Another group, such as Greg Sheridan, Tom Dusevic, Ross Fitzgerald are perhaps marginally less acerbic, but adversarial nevertheless.

Still closer to the middle of the curve are journalists such as Phil Coorey and Laurie Oakes, but both are unpredictable, seemingly more interested in stirring the pot than transmitting useful information and offering analysis. Coorey seems to have a ‘Ruddstoration’ obsession, and Oakes a penchant for ‘leaks’ that have earned him infamy among some, and admiration among his colleagues. Lenore Taylor, of recent 'context' fame, and 'sketch' writer Annabel Crabb, belong within this cluster.

Over the other side of the curve we have a small cluster of the more balanced writers. George Megalogenis immediately comes to mind, and further still into the balanced end we have Laura Tingle, Tim Dunlop, Peter Martin and the fearless Ross Gittins.

But we soon run out of these admirable people – the MSM is dominated by those who are tarred with the Murdoch brush: to replace the Gillard Government by an Abbott government, and to ‘destroy the Greens at the ballot box’. No matter what their views are personally, they consistently come up with articles adverse to PM Gillard and her Government and supportive of, or defensive of, or at least not too critical of the Opposition Leader, no matter how gross his behaviour, no matter how inane or dishonest his utterances, no matter how badly he stumbles.

As I was finishing this piece, NormanK drew my attention to what must be one of the most appalling pieces of journalism I have ever read. Titled: Labor shuffling numbers for political survival and written my an anonymous ‘Staff Writer’ for the Sunday Herald Sun, it alludes to only one piece of factual information – that the Government was to present its Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which is sarcastically described as a "mini-horror mini-budget". The rest is simply opinion; nasty, vitriolic, adverse opinion of a biased writer who clearly loathes the Labor Government. If you have the stomach, read it to see how grotesquely incompetent and malevolent journalism has become.

This state of affairs in our mainstream media is dangerous. We are being seriously shortchanged at a time when we need all the help we can get to select our next government.

We need factual information about Government and Coalition and Greens’ policies and their costings. We need a thorough and unbiased analysis of all of them. We need comparisons to be made between them, carefully analysed and summarized so that we can comprehend their intent, the pros and the cons, the cost benefits, and the likelihood of their succeeding. We cannot take for granted what our politicians feed us, redolent as it so often is with exaggeration, distortion of the truth, hidden implications, and dishonest projections. We need an honest, competent, unbiased, balanced mainstream media to assist us. But we don’t have it. Most of it is the antithesis of these desirable attributes.

It’s not right. It’s dangerously wrong. Is there any hope that our mainstream media will ever meet the needs of intelligent voters seeking to cast an informed vote in selecting who will govern us for the next term?

Thomas Sowell, an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, columnist and author expresses his doubts: “If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.”

We find ourselves having to rely more and more on the Fifth Estate and social media for what we need, for the balance we crave.

Is balance an unreachable dream? Is it a fantasy like fairies at the end of the garden? Can the Murdoch domination of media thought be overcome?

Does our salvation reside in mustering our own resources in the Fifth Estate? We have access to a plethora of factual news outlets, all over the world, and we are as capable of analyzing the facts, and expressing an opinion about them, as mainstream journalists.

In fact as Mr Denmore says: ”…'the news' isn't what it was. It isn't owned by anyone. It is increasingly contested. And as bloggers scale up and embrace some of the craft qualities of journalism, the mainstream media increasingly ‘moulds’ news to satisfy the world views of its target markets…In fact, as blogs more and more resemble professionally written traditional media, the old media looks more and more like blogs.”

So it’s over to us!

What do you think?

The Punishment That Fits No Crime

Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – one doesn’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape, over 80% were sentenced to less than six years. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse. Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.

The Political Sword welcomes a new author, Marian Dalton, who is, in no particular order, an editor, blogger, reader, writer, poet, mother, graduate student and sometime academic. She currently works as a freelance editor, citizen journalist and media advisor. Clients have included national political parties, lobby groups and community associations. Her blog, The Conscience Vote, provides accessible analysis of Australian political and social issues and aims to engage all people in public debate.

Out of bounds on the full

Victoria, like many other independent bloggers, wrote last week about the failure of the mainstream media to understand the significance of Julia Gillard’s speech denouncing the sexism she has been subject to. As Victoria pointed out, for much of the media, it is apparently ‘just politics’. Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott was followed up by the very same journalists with reports about sexist remarks directed at Abbott’s female chief of staff. Tit for tat. See? Both sides are as bad as each other.

This is part of the ‘politics is a dirty game’ convention. Working within this convention – as the mainstream media do – day-to-day politics is a game in which both sides seek advantage. Both sides play hard, both sides are dirty; therefore they are no different. It’s like reporting sport. One side kicks a goal, someone fumbles a pass, the ball is out on the full, and the scoreboard shows the result, courtesy of the fortnightly polls. It’s just a question of who is better at the game. Look at the scoreboard mate.

It’s easy for reporters and commentators to write as if the daily battle of tactics means that the two sides are just the same, and as bad as each other. Of course some journalists (guess which ones) don’t think the parties equally bad; they cheerfully reflect the anti-Labor bias of their employers. But others present themselves as ‘independent’: think Sales, Uhlmann, Hartcher, Crabb, Taylor, Grattan, Cassidy or Oakes. They claim that their ‘equally bad’ treatment shows ‘balance’, or evenhandedness. They routinely argue that after all, the opposition will do anything to get rid of the government now or at the next election, and the government will do anything to stay in power now or at the next election, and this constitutes the (equally bad) politics they report on.

Of course there’s a place for day-to-day political reporting. It’s not just that it’s the Canberra Press Gallery’s bread and butter. It’s not just that politics tragics couldn’t live without it. What happens on a short-term basis affects the morale and effectiveness of both sides and the view the electorate takes of the parties. And the particular circumstances of this parliament render day to day reporting compelling for anyone interested in politics. The hung parliament itself makes this reporting important, as theoretically the government could fall at any time. Tony Abbott’s single minded strategy of trying to force an election by making the parliament unworkable also captures day to day attention. The more or less precarious hold the leader of each party has on their position as leader also feeds the daily round.

However the mainstream media don’t do a very good job of this day-to-day reporting. This is partly because some journalists just report what politicians say, very often word for word – ‘the Leader of the Opposition said…’ Some reporters find it easier to write stories based on press handouts from politicians than to do any actual research themselves. (It’s also editors who want a particular spin, but that’s another matter.)

Yet even when they report accurately on the success or failure of the day to day tactics, they rarely question the political strategies that underlie them. Abbott’s strategy of making parliament a shouting match feeds cynicism in the electorate about politicians and politics. We’ll all pay for that in due course. But do any of the mainstream media call him on it? Does anyone even give a nod to the realities of minority government? The tit for tat reporting of the debate over Slipper’s disgusting text messages was allowed entirely to overshadow the issue of whether the Speaker was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and, indeed, the issue of the separation of powers. We laughed when Bjelke-Petersen didn’t know what that meant, but apparently journalists don’t know either, or don’t think it’s important enough to comment on. And then of course there’s the whole issue of the undeniable use of sexism, personal denigration and outright lies by the opposition leader. Which side is doing the damage to the national interest here? You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media.

But presenting politics as a rather sleazy sport creates an even more serious problem. Concentrating on the day to day tactics means that substance, or lack of it, goes unreported. Politics is more than just tactics, or even strategy. It is about how power and influence should be apportioned, and how wealth distributed in a society. The whole issue of the long-term outcomes of policy decisions is all but ignored by our mainstream media. There’s a theory about how he thinks the world should work behind Tony Abbott’s attack on the carbon tax. Which mainstream journalists explore it? They just report his hyperbole. And what about the constant talking-down of the economy by the Opposition? What sort of economy do they want? Who would benefit? And turning the boats around? What view of Australian society does that represent? We don’t know much about the Opposition’s plans for Australia should they win office. But even what we have been told goes unquestioned. Who is analysing the winners and losers from the direct action carbon reduction plan, and asking Greg Hunt about it? Who is looking at how paying the salaries of women on maternity leave is going to work out for poor women and asking Abbott about it? Journalists say that their job is to report impartially, not to comment in a partisan way – that is up to columnists. But surely this doesn’t mean taking whatever is said at face value? Is anyone interested in fact checking? Even if politics as a world view is too hard for them, couldn’t they manage a reality check on the bits of substance we have been given?

It’s interesting to speculate how the mainstream media would treat an Abbott government. Media outlets that already cheer-lead for him would continue to do so, which hardly comes as a surprise. And the self-appointed ‘independent’ journalist? My guess is that it would be business as usual. It’s just a game, after all.

We are being served up rubbish. Whatever you think of any of the parties seeking power in Australia, no one’s interest (except possibly lazy journalists’) is served by promoting the assumption that they are all the same. We need to know the differences in how they understand power and influence and the distribution of wealth, as revealed in what their members say and do. Certainly there are policy similarities, and these deserve discussion too. The argument that the major parties are as bad as each other, and by implication without any substance, is at best blind, and at worst self-serving. Far from making journalists neutral umpires, the ‘they are just the same and as bad as each other’ convention distorts reality, and turns the media into players. And guess which side that helps?

After I’d written this post, I saw Kevin Rudd on Lateline saying much the same thing, though his emphasis was on the politicians who treat politics as a game, rather than the media who report politics as a game. (He did take a swipe at the media as well for over-emphasising personal differences.) I also saw The Hamster Wheel’s ‘obituary’ of Rudd, which suggested that all of his actions are self-serving. Well perhaps that’s partly true, but in this case Rudd is right. Political debate should, as he says, be policy based, and we should be asking if political power is being used to benefit the few or the many. And did Tony Abbott really say, as Rudd alleges, he loves the smell of blood on the canvas?

If so, I rest my case.

Dr Kay Rollison, the author of this piece, has a PhD in History and has always been interested in politics – historically, in the present, and of course our future political battles.

Why is the mainstream media angry?

I can hear you asking: ‘Why do you say they are angry?’ Read what they write. Listen to what they say. Judge for yourself. To me, the majority of journalists seem angry about the recent turn of events. Not all, but the majority. Let me elaborate.

On top of her record of passing well over four hundred pieces of legislation since elected, much of it impressively reforming, while presiding over the most vibrant economy in the developed world, and as she performs well on the international stage, PM Gillard’s approval is rising although still low, Tony Abbott’s approval languishes well below, Julia Gillard is comfortably ahead in the PPM stakes, and the polling trend shows a narrowing of the gap between the major parties, although the Coalition is still well ahead.

Political journalists, most of who have been confidently predicting a Coalition landslide and a Labor wipeout in 2013, know from experience that when an election is called the polls will narrow from the current average of 56/44 towards parity. I sense that they see that the tide is slowly turning against the Coalition, and the prospect receding of it winning easily, or even at all, in 2013.

For most of the columnists at News Limited, for Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, to name just two Fairfax journalists, for Tony Jones at the ABC and maybe also for Chris Uhlmann, Leigh Sales, Emma Alberici, and Sabra Lane, the prospect of the Coalition losing again appears to be worrisome, anxiety provoking, even anger generating.

Journalists are fond of talking about ‘context’, often insinuating that as insiders they understand this, while those of us outside their circle do not. They parade what they regard as their profound understanding of the ‘context’ of Canberra. Lenore Taylor did in PM's speech did stir hearts, but remember the context. She and her colleagues argued that we on the outside got it all wrong when we applauded Julia Gillard’s magnificent demolition of Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny in her speech last week, and that instead Gillard was the loser on the grounds that she was ‘over the top’ and would thereby lose support, and further that she was being hypocritical by speaking to support the Speaker, himself accused of sexism. Some objected even on the grounds that the word ‘misogyny’ was a misnomer.

Most of them completely missed, or avoided, the crucial point that PM Gillard was defending the entitlement of the Speaker to be afforded due process, to be given the right of reply, to have his extant court case settled before his parliamentary colleagues judged him. They missed that she was defending the processes of the parliament, and its dignity and that of the second most senior office in the House. She was opposing the trashing of proper parliamentary procedure that a ‘Motion to Suspend Standing Orders’, without notice, would bring about. She was NOT supporting Peter Slipper and his unseemly remarks, and she said so emphatically.

But most of the tone-deaf Press Gallery didn’t hear that, most didn’t see what she was doing. Most saw her move as simply another political move. Which demonstrates starkly how their insider status has distorted their hearing and their vision, how seriously it has perverted their understanding of the ‘context’ of Canberra, one that is a product of their own imaginings. Like in the remote Asian mountain village where most of the inhabitants are blind, and therefore being without vision is the norm, blindness and deafness seems to afflict most of our Press Gallery, an affliction of which they, like the remote villagers, seem quite unaware. Moreover, they seem blissfully unaware of the views of the man in the street, and in this case particularly, the woman in the street. Perhaps they are so close to their own context that they cannot see what we do, albeit from the ‘outside’.

This was plainly exhibited on The Wrap last Friday morning on Jon Faine’s ABC 774 Melbourne radio. Regulars, the IPA’s John Roskom, who represents the extreme right, and Sally Warhaft of the Wheeler Centre, who is supposed to give left wing balance, both condemned Julia Gillard’s speech, and continued to do so in the face of over eight out of ten text messages, and a similar proportion of talkback callers, passionately supporting our PM. Roskam simply labelled these people as ‘lefties’ and therefore to be discounted; Warhaft, while somewhat set back on her heels, continued to insist she was right in condemning our PM. I have listened to The Wrap for years but have never heard such condemnation of the panellists by talkback callers, the majority of whom were women. Yet the panellists persisted with their view, unmoved by the strong expression of public opinion, a reflection of the attitude of much of the Canberra Press Gallery.

What on earth has happened to our journalistic elite? Are they on the same planet as we? Denise Allen addresses the same issue in her piece MSM Versus The Fifth Estate on her website Denise Allen Australian Politics. Do read it.

Just a few have called the situation in a balanced way, notably Tim Dunlop, in his article on The Drum Unleashed: The gatekeepers of news have lost their keys that begins: “The past few weeks have made clear that the people are no longer passive observers in the news process. If journalists want to stay relevant, they'd better work with their audience.” Do read it.

The unawareness of most of the Press Gallery was starkly demonstrated in countless opinion pieces. Look at Peter Hartcher’s article: We expected more of Gillard for one of the grossest examples, beginning as it does with: ”If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed”, and at Michelle Grattan’s: Misogyny war has no winner that begins: ”The PM may have made a hero of herself to some feminists but she did the wrong thing in trying to protect the sexist Peter Slipper.” They seem blind to the matter of high parliamentary principle that PM Gillard was strenuously defending. This is dangerous.

They seem not only disappointed and judgmental, but angry too. Why are they so?

If you want to see anger, take a look at Tony Jones on last Thursday’s Lateline, who ostensibly sought to interview Wayne Swan about the latest job figures before he left for the IMF/World Bank meeting in Tokyo, but who spent the first twelve minutes of the twenty minute interview taking about everything else in an aggressive, adversarial, and at times angry way – the Slipper affair in all its detail, and the bad joke at the CFMEU function – before getting round to jobs. He behaved like ‘counsel for the prosecution’. As he did on the previous night, he homed in on the word ‘misogynist’, asserting that ”it is the worst thing you could say about a man” (about six minutes in), insisting that it meant ‘a hatred of women’. This is where his anger bubbled up noticeably. Clearly, he felt this label for Abbott was unfair, basing his view on the older formal definition of the word: ‘the hatred or dislike of women or girls’, rather than the looser way it is now commonly used, as described in Wikipedia, which says: ”According to feminist theory, misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, denigration of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women”. Surely Jones must be aware of this looser definition, but he chose to labour the formal definition to demean its use by Julia Gillard and her ministers. Why are he and the many others who quibble about the use of the word ‘misogyny’, so angry with Tony Abbott getting a dose of his own disrespectful medicine? Why are they so angry about the contempt Abbott hands out every day being returned?

In my view it is because Jones and others who regularly demean PM Gillard and her Government and look to its replacement by an Abbott led Coalition Government, are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the recent turn of events, beginning with the Alan Jones saga and continuing with PM Gillard’s fine address, which has gone viral around the world, and around this nation too, with now almost 1.9 million YouTube views.

They are concerned too that the alternative PM continues on his aggressive, destructive and demeaning way despite the warning signs that this is not going down well with the voters, that he is making too many mistakes, showing too many lapses of judgement, adhering too closely to his old and now defunct mantras, and consistently declining to address policy and costing issues at his abbreviated and mostly soft interviews with the media. He is looking less and less like prime ministerial material, yet there is no plausible replacement. His supporters, who abound in the mainstream media, are becoming anxious, hoping for a lift in his performance, wishing for a more positive approach, yearning for a rise in his popularity and a widening of the TPP gap, but repeatedly disappointed. Anxiety and disappointment is steadily morphing into irritation, resentment and bubbling anger, which erupts in articles and interviews.

If you didn’t see it, do take a look at the segment on last Sunday’s Insiders: Gillard's misogyny speech taken in context. There you will see Lenore Taylor retreating somewhat from her strident SMH comment on ‘context’, and responding more reasonably to the strong expression of public opinion. You will see Andrew Probyn making his usual sensible comments. You will also see the annoyance and simmering anger of long time Abbott supporter Michael Stutchbury, who defiantly argues that PM Gillard’s speech will harm her among her traditional supporters – the ‘blue collar base’, the ‘union warlords’ and the ‘new professional class’, which he calls ‘the progressives’, labels he repeats several times. He disregards the public response as he defends Abbott, dismissively referring to “…the odd comments of Abbott here and there over time…”, adding, as if in explanation, ”he’s a traditional Catholic…”, whatever that means! The 'odd comments’ indeed! He twists and turns, irritated that the other panellists, and Barrie Cassidy too, disagree with him. He seems to have substituted wishful thinking for logical reasoning. He is infuriated and frustrated, and it shows. Eventually, perhaps to placate the exasperated Stutchbury, the panel ‘agrees’ that Julia Gillard’s address won’t change votes. We will see about that.

Of course, Stutchbury is singing from the same song sheet as others in the Coalition Cheer squad. It is uncanny. It is as if they have all attended the same briefing. In a copy of The Weekend Australian we picked up at a relative’s home, I noticed in Inquirer three articles from the Coalition choir. Paul Kelly wrote: Misogyny will backfire: The PM has wasted her passion on an unworthy cause; Dennis Shanahan’s piece was titled: Grubby attempts to smear Abbott as a hater will leave Labor base unimpressed; and Tom Dusevic had the lead piece: Players in Risky Game: Politicians who are obsessed with point scoring ignore voters at their peril.

Like Stutchbury, all insisted that PM Gillard would be the loser; like Stutchbury, all airbrushed away the persistent vile bullying sexist behaviour and remarks that Abbott has been directing at PM Gillard day after day for years, behaviour which precipitated Julia Gillard’s passionate response. The only concession was that he might have a ‘women problem’; his contemptible behaviour towards the nation’s first female PM was virtually ignored. If you can get behind the paywall, and have the fortitude to read their pieces, you will see the extraordinary uniformity of their offerings, all choristers singing the same hymn, no doubt hoping their words will persuade readers to their view. Wishful thinking has replaced facts and reason.

Take a look too at Paul Sheehan’s defence of Abbott in the SMH: Comments directed at Tony Abbott, where he collects comments in a manner we might expect from kids in the schoolyard seeking to return insults. He would have had to be very annoyed to go to such trouble.

Is their annoyance, apprehension and anger a product of their own political values and orientation? Maybe, but surely not for all of them! Is it the result of groupthink, which we know afflicts so many, making them unprepared to express opinions outside of the mainstream? Is it living in the Canberra ‘echo-chamber’, a term they like to use to describe the Fifth Estate, where the opinions of those in the next office, in the Press Gallery, at their drinking holes, in the parliamentary corridors, are the ones they embrace, rather than those of the electorate? Are they too influenced by opinion polls and focus groups, which are feeding them unreliable information and making unreliable predictions? Are they afraid to deviate from the position they have held for so long that the Coalition is a shoo-in at the next election?

Are they apprehensive that the goodwill that they have built up with Tony Abbott and Coalition members that would ensure they are on their drip feed should the Coalition win government, might be for naught? Are they concerned about writing anything that might evoke the disapproval of Rupert Murdoch? Journalists who work for him would not dare to do so, and those who don’t, might need a job with him. Job insecurity is rife and must influence the behaviour of journalists. If you think this is fantasy, read what Dick Smith says in the SMH: “One ABC journalist said to me: ''Dick, I couldn't mention that your magazine was rejected by the Murdoch press because one day I might have to apply for a job with them.''

How each of these factors operate we cannot know, and I guess journalists would dismiss them as irrelevant. I suppose they will never reveal to us how they feel and think. That would be below them.

The thrust of this piece is that there is mounting anger among mainstream media journalists as the fortunes of the Gillard Government and the stature of PM Gillard improve, and as the performance and stature of the Leader of the Opposition decline, and that this anger is increasingly manifest in their writings and interviews, where they hit out at PM Gillard and her Government, and defend Tony Abbott and his Coalition even more vigorously. The reasons for this are postulated above.

But whatever the reason, I predict we will see more and more anger while the situation improves for the Government and declines for the Coalition. How long journalists will take to adjust to the new reality that a Coalition victory is no longer assured, will be up to them. I suspect it will take quite a while.

What do you think?

Which politician is telling the truth?

Mainstream journalists’ reporting of politics is broken. In a week in which our first female PM spoke out passionately and convincingly against sexism and misogyny, mainstream political commentators have been lining up to ‘contextualise’ the speech – to lessen its importance by explaining it away as part of a narrow political strategy. Their slavish devotion to balance requires them to argue that both sides are as bad as each other. There is a major problem with this strategy however: the truth is very likely to be buried. There are many instances where their attempts to explain away the importance of an event destroy the factual reportage of the story and the resulting analysis.

A good example of this is the coverage of Tony Abbott’s drawn-out campaign to demolish the carbon tax. Throughout this campaign, the mainstream media gave Abbott license to bullshit. They also gave him license to align himself with a group of Australians who hate the Prime Minister, after being whipped into a frenzy by Abbott’s bullshit and Alan Jones’s hysteria. When Abbott stood more than once under the ‘Ditch the Witch’ placards, he crossed from campaigning politician to redneck nut-job Tea-Party-like hero. Did the mainstream media report this significant event? Did any journalist manage to understand its significance? At the continuous door-stop press conferences, where Abbott tried to scare Australians into voting for him by promising that the sky was going to fall, that ‘Whyalla would be wiped off the map’, did any journalist call him out for his blatant fear mongering or his ‘looseness’ with the facts? Did any journalist grill Abbott about his alternative climate change policy? Not that I noticed. Instead, journalists were keen to paint Abbott as a ‘successful’ opposition leader. If success in opposition is earned by negativity, lies and building an atmosphere of nastiness and disrespect, then yes, Abbott is a successful opposition leader. In my view, a successful opposition leader, should, by definition, critique and oppose, and offer credible alternative policies. On these counts, Abbott gets a zero score. Not that you will see any Australian mainstream journalist pointing this out.

So back to this they’re just as bad as each other problem. I’ve already written this week about a few notable myopic accounts of the Prime Minister’s speech, which completely misrepresented the community’s elation at a very important moment in feminist history. There have been more contributions since which have been equally disappointing. Lenore Taylor in the SMH headlined her article on this topic: PM’s speech did stir hearts but remember the context. Taylor claims in her article that:

“If you forgot the context, didn't over-scrutinise the substance and just saw a powerful woman calling out sexism and saying she had had enough, it was arresting.”

And then, a big BUT:

“…the context that the speech was part of a deliberate, tested strategy of capitalising on the Coalition's relative unpopularity with women due to Tony Abbott's political aggression by conflating it with the unsupportable allegation that he actually hates females.”

This ‘context’ that Taylor offers us is the typical misrepresentation of context through the prism of so called ‘balanced’ reporting. Taylor is basically suggesting that Gillard’s speech was part of a strategy that enabled her to support ‘her’ Speaker and to remind voters that Tony Abbott is disliked by some females, and to continue the campaign of the ‘hand bag hit squad’ to influence voters to believe that Tony Abbott is a misogynist, all part of a larger political strategy to stay ahead in the polls and win the next election. Abbott’s support of Alan Jones, in the likes of Taylor’s mind, is also just a political strategy to align himself with Jones’s listeners. David Marr’s portrayal of Abbott’s bullying and intimidatory behavior at university was also written off by journalists as a political strategy to undermine his support with women, even though Marr is a journalist, not a politician. He was reporting facts, and other journalists turned it into spin. Labor’s decision to highlight Abbott’s terrible behavior towards women in parliament and beyond, is, you see, all part of a ‘political strategy’ and nothing else. (Never mind how narrow a conception of politics this implies.)

Let’s step out of theses journalists’ ‘context’ for a moment, and instead, look at the context as an ordinary person on the street. And lets throw some facts in as well. Imagine that the female Labor MPs have been reporting on Abbott’s sexist behavior towards them because they are genuinely outraged by it. I am not naïve enough to believe that every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is not political in some way, but I am also not as cynical as the mainstream media who obviously believe that everything that comes out of a politician’s mouth is political and ‘invented’ for political purposes. The inference in most of the coverage of Gillard’s speech has been this:

Labor is trying to paint Abbott as a misogynist to win votes, but Abbott is not a misogynist. Gillard’s speech was about defending Slipper, not making a stand against misogyny. Nothing happens in politics that isn’t invented for political purposes.

This is absolute crap. Journalists are forgetting that politicians are people too. Sometimes, as on this occasion, when they are upset by something, they explain why they are upset. Abbott’s terrible behavior towards female parliamentarians has been ignored by the mainstream media. And when Labor MPs speak out about it, it is reported as ‘just another political tactic’, rather than fact. Because they’re all just as bad as each other. Gillard’s speech was NOT about Peter Slipper. Gillard has had enough of Abbott’s behavior and her speech contained plenty of evidence that we, as a community, should be outraged by. None of this evidence has been ‘cooked up’ for political purposes. This is the major point that journalists seem to have forgotten. They also have forgotten their own inability to analyse the behavior Gillard, and many Australian women, are so offended by.

So here’s my question for mainstream journalists: what if they’re not as bad as each other? What if Abbott really is the problem? What if Gillard’s speech was just as important to our society as Keating’s Redfern speech and Rudd’s Sorry speech, and you all stood by and missed it? How can we ever respect you again (if we did in the first place?).

Back in April, I came across a very interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post by Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Their essay was based on their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism

The article is titled ‘Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem’ and explains:

“In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”

You can read the article to see the authors’ explanation of what these problems are, which are all related the Republican Party’s dramatic swing to the right. At the end of the article, the authors have this advice for American journalists:

“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”

Are we likely to see any Australian journalist making such a stand any time in the near future? This is highly unlikely, but I can always live in hope.

Mortgaged to the Hilt

2GB’s headquarters at Macquarie Square is engulfed, currently, in a fog of despondency.

Business used to be booming, with all the expensive metal advertising billboards that surrounded the square resplendent with copious amounts of posters spruiking the wares of various businesses that were only too happy to jack up their prices and hand over the proceeds to 2GB’s shareholders.

Yes, they were the good old days, when Macquarie Square was known as the OK Corral – where any leftie who was stupid enough to venture thereabouts, ended up with an arse-full of buckshot. Now, however, it’s known as the Not-So-OK Corral, and the now-resident leftie goons, aka the Handbag Hit Squad, rule the roost.

So, in response to this changing of the guard, the advertisers have shot the crow instead and the billboards lay empty. In fact, the very expensive metal advertising hoardings around Macquarie Square have had to be taken down and sold as scrap, to pay for a few outstanding bills. They have been replaced with cheap balsawood panels, but still, they lay bereft of any income-generating ads. The square, really, has gone to the dogs, with tumbleweed blowing everywhere and property prices in the neighbourhood plummeting.

And this is of special interest to Tony Abbott. As everyone knows, Margie, the girls and he live just around the corner from Macquarie Square and their house is now worth only a fraction of what they paid for it when they took out that great big fat mortgage. Tones had hoped to have been installed in The Lodge by now, with his accompanying fat pay rise. So he is now reduced to cooking food in his kitchen and selling it from the rickety table he has placed on the weed-infested pavement outside his front door.

So, on this particular day, whilst Tones is slaving away in the kitchen, he hears the barking orders of Margie bellowing out from the lounge-room where she is watching, with the daughters, the footy on the telly.

Margie: Tony!!! I hope you’re working hard out there in the kitchen!!! There’ll be no re-runs of Downton Abbey for you if you don’t prepare all that food for us to sell!!! And you’ve got a long way to go, y’know, in making a success of that scam you’re trying to pull of pretending you’ve got a feminine side...If you’ve made any headway at all, it’s all down to me, y’know...all those TV and magazine interviews I’ve done, trying to save your sorry ass on Newspoll...

[Tones, dressed in his pink frilly apron and matching budgie smugglers, has had enough of these disrespectful taunts at his masculinity. He so wants to blurt out, “if you don’t shut your fat mouth, woman, I’ll whack you a few times around the chops with this wooden spoon I’m holding...grrrrrr...” Instead, realising he needs Margie’s ongoing cooperation in his cunning plan to manufacture a caring feminine side, he replies meekly through gritted teeth.]

Tones (sarcastically): Yes, dear...I can assure you I’m working extremely hard, fact, I haven’t worked so hard since that last door-stop interview I gave, when I only gave the reporter the chance to say, “Erm...Mr Abbott...” and I walked off to meet my pedicure appointment...heh...heh...

Margie: Well, if you don’t lift your game in there, mate, I’ll be cutting off more than your toenails...

[Tones has had enough of this girly cooking lark and decides the time is ripe for ending the Handbag Hit Squad’s hegemony in Macquarie Square once and for all. But, he knows this won’t be easy. The Handbag Hit Squad, comprising of Penny Wong, Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and led by that bloody witch Gillard, have already put paid to his first line of defence, Julie Bishop, Kelly O’Dwyer, Michelle Grattan and that bird Sophie Mirabella. With handbags at two paces, Julie and the other loyal girls didn’t stand a chance.

So, Tones is on to Plan B, and what a plan it is, even if he says so himself. Tones is going to bring in the heavy-hitters, those members of the Coalition who are strong of stature and carrying, literally, a lot of weight in the organisation. “Huh...just watch Gillard and her Handbag Hit Squad get the better of these way Jose”, Tones confidently says to himself.

However, there is one serious flaw in his latest plan: all the big hitters are blokes, and Tones doesn’t want it to backfire on him when the cyber-bullying lefties in the anti-social media say that all he is good for is organising his over-weight male goon squad to bash up a group of girls. All Margie’s good work in trying to manufacture a feminine image for him would have been to no avail. But, first, Tones has to get Margie’s permission to leave the kitchen.]

Tones: Erm...Margie, darling...I need to go down to the convenience store to get a packet of Johnnies...won’t be long...

Margie: Huh...I don’t think you’re going to need any for a while, mate...I’m going to have to do a lot more interviews on your behalf...and you know how they always give me headaches...

[Tones has to reassure Margie that what she means by a packet of Johnnies, is not what he had in mind. He explains to her that he needs some more desiccated coconut to sprinkle on the cakes he is making.

So, Tones gets his leave-pass and, stuffing four of his hardest rock-cakes in his chaff handbag, sets off for Macquarie Square. Once there, he gets on the mobile to the four heavy-hitters, reminding them not to forget to bring along their chaff handbags (Tonebags) containing the women’s clothing he had procured for them earlier.

Soon, four taxis, the suspensions of which seem to be struggling somewhat, stop at the square. They are so low to the ground, Tones reckons each contains a herd of hippos being transported to the local zoo. Immediately, Joe Hockey, Alan Jones, Ron Boswell and Scott Buchholz are disgorged. However, the health and safety of the taxis’ suspensions are still at risk.]

Tones: About time too!!! And what gives with the overloaded taxis – surely you’ve only got your Tonebag inside with your women’s clothing – they couldn’t weigh that much!!

[It takes all their strength for the four heavyweights to lift their chaff handbags out of the taxis. In disgust, Tones turns on Joe Hockey.]

Tones: How many times have I told you not to carry your budget black holes around in your Tonebag!! No wonder it’s so heavy – it’s sucking in all the matter from miles around, ffs!! Sheesh...just get your high heels, fish nets and push-up bra out, go behind the hoarding and get changed...

[Tones then turns on the hapless Alan Jones.]

Tones: And as for’s all your fault we lost the advertising on the hoardings...So, why’s your Tonebag so heavy then?

[Tones doesn’t even wait for an answer, and immediately opens up Alan’s chaff handbag and spots, as well as his batch of women’s clothing, a whole array of car parts! There are hub-caps, ashtrays, a jack, window wipers and god-knows what else!]

Tones: WTF’s all this? No wonder your friggin’ Tonebag weighs a bloody ton!!

Alan (indignantly): didn’t expect me to give my Merc back without a fight, did you? Next week, in place of all the ads that have been pulled from my show, I’m going to be auctioning all these – I reckon I’ll be on a right little earner...heh...heh...

[Tones, in disgust, orders Alan behind the blank hoarding to get changed. Ron Boswell and Scott Buchholz also make their excuses for having extraordinarily heavy Tonebags. Ron’s, for example, is chockers with wheat! He says he is siphoning it off, causing the supply to fall, thereby raising the price, when he will then release it onto the market, making an absolute killing! Tones, being bored by economics, hasn’t got a clue what Ron is on about, so turns to Scott, who maintains his chaff handbag is so heavy because he has imprisoned Campbell Newman inside. Instead of the bollocking the other three get, Scott gets a gold star from Tones.

Shortly afterwards, all of Tones’ heavy hitters are kitted out in their women’s gear, making a group of Poor Clare nuns look like four Kings Cross hookers. However, before Tones can order them to empty their chaff handbags of the burdensome contents within, and arm their Tonebags instead with a workmanlike rock cake, Joe can’t help aiming a few well-directed jibes at Alan.]

Joe: Hey, Alan...why can’t you learn to keep your big mouth shut at those flaky Young Liberal shindigs – if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be in this mess...

Alan (pompously): Don’t pay any attention to these leftie accusations, my boy...they are purely canards...

Joe: Huh...talking of canards, Alan, I hear you next car is going to be a Rolls Canardly...

Alan (excitedly): Wow, Joe...that’s news to me! Is a Rolls Canardly their latest up-market model for celebrities like moi?

Joe: I don’t know about that, Alan...but I hear it’s been designed for you in particular – it rolls down one hill and can hardly get up the next...bwahahahaha...

[The others wet themselves laughing at Alan’s expense.]

Alan (highly indignant): Huh,’s a good job you haven’t got a mirror handy to see yourself...with those man-boobs and that push-up bra, you’re doing a good impersonation of Silicon Valley...heh...heh...

[Suddenly, from around one of the corners of Macquarie Square, appears the Handbag Hit Squad, wielding their fearsome handbags (except for Julia, who has forgotten hers again!)

Tones’ gang realises they are outflanked and despairingly try to lift their overladen chaff handbags to swing at Gillard’s mob, but to no avail. The Handbag Hit Squad is on top of them, making Tones wish their chaff handbags were full of weightless carbon dioxide instead.]

Julia: Well, well, well, girls...look who it is – the Tonebag Tit Squad...heh...heh...Let’s wreck the joint!!

[Before Nicola, Penny and Tanya have time to raise a handbag in mortal combat, Joe and the others take to their heels, leaving Tones on his own, angrily facing up to a handbag-less Julia who is standing in front of the balsawood advertising hoarding.

Tones swings a punch, which misses Julia, but makes a hole in the hoarding. He swings his other fist, which again doesn’t hit his intended target. Before Tones can extricate his fists, Nicola Roxon, most appropriately as Attorney-General, nips under the hoarding and clamps Tones in handcuffs. Tones is going nowhere.

Hours later, and night has well and truly fallen. Tones’ plaintive cries of, “’m going to miss Downton Abbey on the telly...” go unheard and unanswered in the Abbott household where Margie and the daughters are busily trying to complete the cake-making task that Tones has ungraciously failed to complete.]

Daughter 1 (anguished): Dearest looks like daddykins will never make it into The Lodge...We’re doomed to having to make and sell lamingtons to pay the mortgage for the rest of our

Margie: I hate to tell you this, dearie, but it’s even worse than that...

Daughter 2 (equally anguished): Oh, how could it be so, Mamma?

Margie: Have you ever tried to get people to buy lamingtons that don’t have any desiccated coconut on them?

The attack dog that licked its owner’s hand

Desperate situations demand desperate actions. The feedback from private Liberal Party polls and from focus groups must have been grim for Tony Abbott. They must have shown that his rating with women was lamentable. Otherwise, why would his minders and his family embark on such a brazen ‘Tony is nice guy’ campaign on TV and in the Murdoch tabloids? Presumably, saturation coverage was deemed necessary to pull him back from the abyss on which he must be teetering. It is rumoured that Newspoll exposed such bad news for Abbott and the Coalition that, although overdue, it has been postponed.

Desperation could be the only explanation for such an obvious crusade, one that all but Abbott’s sycophants would see through in an instant as a series of puff pieces on TV and in the press. Those responsible either gave no thought to how bizarre this series of stunts would look to the ordinary voter, how unconvincing they would be, or the situation was so bad and deteriorating that such a ridiculous strategy was considered worth a shot on the questionable grounds that even if it failed, it couldn’t make the situation worse for Abbott man.

Of course, it started a couple of weeks ago when Tony’s misogynist behaviour dating back to university days was exposed for all to see in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, where he recalled the Barbara Ramjan story.

Soon after, we had the Punch and Judy show, where Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop came out at doorstops echoing identical lines, fed to them by their minders. NormanK listed these amusingly:

J. Bishop: The Tony I know …..

C. Pyne: The Tony I know …..
J. Bishop: … helped a blind man …..
C. Pyne: … helped a blind man …..
J. Bishop: … worked on a burn-off with …..
C. Pyne: … worked on a burn-off with …..
J. Bishop: That's the Tony I know. 

C. Pyne: That's the Tony I know.

Andrew Bolt joined the chorus but added that Tony also helps Aboriginals, validated by a nice photo of Abbott sitting with them.

Storm clouds were obviously gathering. Here are some edited quotes from the Fourth and Fifth Estates, supplied by Lyn and others, that show how serious the storm threat is:

Michelle Grattan, longtime Abbott acolyte, worried about the trend, offered some gratuitous advice: “Why doesn't he go out, just once in a while, without a staffer, perhaps taking his wife Margie – whom the public would really like, if they saw more of her – and look natural and normal? This is not the time to appear with her in some confected interview that the minders negotiate with terms and conditions. Just to do a bit of ''stuff'' together, despite her dislike of the public forum. Possibly – no guarantees – it would help with the ‘woman problem’.”

We shall probably never know who initiated the recent media onslaught – minders, media advisers, or simply Margie Abbott herself, fed up with having her ‘nice Tony’ demonized. It’s OK for her Tony to demonize our PM every day with his ‘liar’ and ‘untrustworthy’ mantras, but not OK for her man to cop it sweet in return. No doubt, there will be learned analyses by the few journalists who have the courage to dissect the matter at all.

Tony Wright gave it a satirical shot in The Brisbane Times. Before you read what he wrote though, take a look at the video at the top of his article where Lisa Wilkinson conducts a soft interview with Margie and Tony. Observe the supercilious smile on his face as Margie insistently extols his virtues. Does he remind you of a Pit Bull sitting gently by its mistress with that enigmatic look on its face that belies the anger and aggression beneath, waiting to explode in an instant into a violent attack on a stranger? To me it was sickening in its hypocrisy.

Wright begins: “Good lord! Where does this leave Malcolm Turnbull? Will he be required to reveal he spends his evenings tenderly tending to the homeless among the Paddington lanes of his eastern suburbs Sydney electorate? And when are we going to hear from Tim Mathieson about Julia's prowess at baking and decorating cupcakes, and how they occasionally weep together at an old episode of Lassie? The revelation by Tony Abbott's inner circle of women that his personal inner goddess is alive and well tosses up dreadful challenges for the Australian political class.

“It would...if it were a story. You'd hardly think it was transfixing news that his wife and daughters loved him. If they'd formed a chorus line to declare that he was a rotter and a cad who secretly pulled the wings off butterflies; now that would be a story.

“Still, the immense amount of newsprint devoted by News Ltd to the story of kind, gentle and loving Abbott, who sent a beautiful bunch of flowers to his wife for their last anniversary even though she'd said she didn't want anything!, exerted a sort of ghastly allurement.

“How could you avert your eyes from the revelation that when Abbott's wife Margie wants to watch the footie on the tellie, Tony protests (sensitively, you'd imagine) that he'd rather watch the costume drama soapie Downton Abbey? Surely this could be the source of a fairly serious marital dispute, but apparently not…Margie had to reach back a fair way for the bit about Tony choking up at a movie. The said film, The Year My Voice Broke, was made 25 years ago…”

Another Fairfax columnist, Lenore Taylor, also has a go in Hold on to your bonnets for the new Downton Abbott.

“It was a blitzkrieg of love, an admiration avalanche. Margie Abbott, flanked by Tony, sitting close on the couch on the Today show, pictured walking the cute dog and lazing on the grass, alongside lengthy testimonials in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. Her message: that her husband has loving relationships with a whole bunch of strong and capable women.

“We have no reason to disbelieve her. Margie and Tony have been married for 24 years and they have three daughters who seem to have become the kind of happy, well-adjusted adults all parents hope they can nurture…

“But Abbott's ''women problem'' was never really about whether he had good relationships with the strong women in his own life. In fact, it wasn't really about whether or not he liked and respected women in general. His real ''women problem'' is that some women voters don't seem to like him…Labor has, without doubt, tried to exacerbate this problem by suggesting to women that he doesn't like them either…

“Combined with the kerfuffle over whether Abbott, as a university student, did or did not punch the wall beside the face of a political rival, there was a real fear within the Coalition that the Labor attack was working.

“The blitzkrieg of love is in fact another very determined, calculated, carefully timed, (just before the next polling cycle) political counter-attack. It is a classic strategy of defence by proxy - grasping at the accusation that Abbott is a misogynist and using it to try to deal with the broader problem that his personal popularity, particularly with female voters, is almost certainly eroded by his very real political aggression. Yes, there have been many acid-tongued politicians over the years, including Labor leaders like Paul Keating and Mark Latham. But this Coalition leader does use political language more aggressive and hyperbolic than Australian voters are used to.

''The voters of Queensland, they won't miss … this Prime Minister and this Leader of the House have got targets on their foreheads,'' he said in the March.

The ''no carbon tax'' pre-election pledge, he repeatedly says, is a "promise that will haunt this government and this Prime Minister to her political grave''.

And on some occasions it is language that wouldn't be used against a man, like last year when he said that ''if the Prime Minister wants to make a - politically speaking - honest woman of herself, she needs to seek a mandate for herself and she should do that at the next election''

…suddenly, Labor was using his aggression against him just as the Coalition leader was trying to turn it down a notch.

And hence we discover, yet again, ''The Real Tony'', who is a ''softie'', who makes his daughters cubby houses and who disagrees with his wife about television viewing because she wants to watch the footy and he insists on Downton Abbey, ''a great program about things that are best in our nature''…

Hmmm, maybe it is possible to take this spin thing too far.

Another Fairfax journalist, Phil Coorey, joined the fray:

“Margie Abbott has launched an extraordinary rebuttal of claims that her husband, Tony Abbott, has a problem with women after a concerted government attack portraying the Opposition Leader as a misogynist began to hurt the Coalition in the polls.

“In an unprecedented intervention by a political spouse, the normally private Mrs Abbott used a newspaper interview, breakfast television and radio interviews, and a speech in western Sydney yesterday in which she said the experience of having three daughters had made Mr Abbott a feminist. (A video of the speech is at the beginning of the article.)

''I'm not a politician and I'm not political - but just don't ever try to tell me that my husband of 24 years and the father of three daughters is on some anti-women crusade. It's simply not true,'' Mrs Abbott told the lunch, which was also attended by Mr Abbott's mother, sisters and one of his daughters.

''You get this - Tony Abbott is surrounded by strong women, in fact not only strong but capable women.''…

“Published and internal polling shows Mr Abbott less popular with female voters. In part, this was helped by recent allegations he physically intimidated a rival female politician at university 35 years ago.

“Then, in the wake of Alan Jones's offensive comments about Julia Gillard's late father, Labor again sought to implicate Mr Abbott by blaming him for creating the culture of personal denigration that encouraged the likes of Jones.

“In her speech, Mrs Abbott indirectly drew a stark contrast with the Prime Minister, who has never married or had children, saying the Abbotts were an ordinary family that had lived an ordinary life…

“The government declined to engage Mrs Abbott but urged voters not to be fooled. ''No amount of fuzzy photo-opportunities can airbrush away Mr Abbott's record of aggressive negativity or the huge risk he poses to the economy,'' the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said.”

Laurie Oakes, the only News Limited journalist to do so, also had a go at critically analyzing the Margie Abbott push in The Punch:

“Tony Abbott’s wife, …in reply to what she called “personal and groundless attacks”- was blunt. “I won’t stand by and let others claim the man I love and the father my children adore has an agenda against women,” Margie Abbott said. The couple’s three daughters and various other female members of the extended family were also involved in bolstering Abbott’s defences.

“The first conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Abbott’s so-called “women problem” is real. It would not provoke such a response unless it was showing up as a serious issue in Liberal Party polling.

“One reason Abbott needs help from his wife and family here is that, at times, he does little to help himself. His initial failure to roundly condemn Sydney shock jock Alan Jones for foul, disgusting and unbelievably nasty comments about Julia Gillard’s dead father was a case in point…

“A second conclusion from the intervention of the Abbott women is that Liberal strategists are concerned about more than the opposition leader’s alleged misogyny. 
Women started to turn against Mark Latham before blokes did because of his aggressive manner. Paul Keating, too, suffered dismal ratings among female voters because of his bare-knuckle style. Abbott’s aggression, his unrelenting attack dog image, is a turn-off for women, and it alienates many male voters as well.

“So the Margie message is not only that “Tony gets women” and operates happily surrounded by strong females. It is also that he is not really the rough, tough, abusive and negative person that people see in parliament and on television. He is, in fact, “a soft touch”, has “a gentle manner”, prefers watching Downton Abbey to the footy, gets teary in sad movies, and is “the most optimistic person you could meet”.

“The Liberal leader has been building his politically pugilistic persona since well before he entered parliament 18 years ago. It is hard to see that such an entrenched image can be altered quickly – but Margie Abbott is obviously going to give it a red hot go…

“The third conclusion from Margie Abbott’s sudden front-line political role is that this must be starting to bite.”

The Fifth Estate is even more condemnatory.

Greg Jericho agrees that the polling must have been poor for Tony Abbott, and graphs the trends to support that contention. He concludes:

“Clearly, Abbott has been rattled by Julia Gillard’s numbers going up (and as Possum pointing up, increasing the ALP’s 2PP with it). The bad news for Tony Abbott is that Possum also notes that the standing of the Opposition Leader has absolutely nothing to do with the party’s 2 party preferred polling number. That means to keep the 2PP numbers high, the Liberal Party has to keep focus on Julia Gillard, which essentially means Tony Abbott attacking her, which obviously the Liberals have found doesn’t go down well in the electorate, and leads to Abbott looking like a bully.

“Which brings us back to where Mr Abbott finds himself today.

“The other aspect is this “Women don’t like Tony” narrative is old hat. Why on earth he feels the need to go big on it now is beyond me. Gillard’s numbers have improved a bit, and Abbott’s have gone down a bit. But is this really panic stations?...

“But instead of treating women as intelligent beings and developing more policies over the next 12 months that will actually affect them, he wants women to know he really is a nice guy.

“Geez, he must think women are stupid.”

NormanK drew our attention to Andrew Elder’s assessment in The Situation with Women.

“The Liberals clearly recognise that women are reluctant to vote for an Abbott government, and that having Margie Abbott talk about her husband in glowing terms might help turn that around.

“It is a standard tactic in American politics to have a candidate bring out their spouse as a way of generating positive impressions without the hard work of policy development and persuasion. Even the most appalling candidate can appeal to voters with a spouse or a family member who can tell endearing, humanising anecdotes about them.

“Margie Abbott should be believed when she says that it was her idea to go on television to support her husband and deny that he has a problem with strong, capable women. It would be a misunderstanding to refer to her as someone who is "wheeled out" to spruik in the way one might refer to a backbencher, or to Chris Pyne, when they are required to prop up their increasingly inadequate leader.

“The fact that Tony Abbott married a woman of substance requires not only a more nuanced understanding of her, but him too. Even people who loathe Tony Abbott should have more sympathy for his wife than they demonstrate when she makes a public stand in his favour.

At the same time, she has chosen to play the sort of blatantly partisan role that attracts negative attention from commentators, amateur and professional. ...If any criticism is due to her media appearances it is due to those who think they are clever in crafting media events of this type: to what extent will that appearance lift Tony Abbott's poll ratings? The judgment of and about those people, and not Mrs Abbott, lives or dies on those questions…

“So what if Tony Abbott's sisters, wife and daughters are all strong and capable and love him dearly?... The voters of Australia are not being invited to join his family. The political premise behind Margie Abbott's remarks is absurd.

“She should not have gone on television with Abbott next to her. It wasn't quite like a hostage haltingly reading out a badly-written statement with a Kalashnikov-wielding, balaclava-clad thug standing over - but she should have been free to tell the sort of anecdote that made him look like a bit of a doofus. Even better, she should have given an example of where she and/or the other women in his life have actually changed his seemingly inflexible mind. That might have made a difference.

“He should also have recognised publicly that Barbara Ramjan, Cheryl Kernot and every other woman who has gotten in his way over the years are no less deserving of basic respect than the women closest to him.

“That Tony Abbott's wife thinks he's nice is neither here nor there. An interview like this might have made a difference in early 2010, but it's too late. Again, the target here is Abbott's strategists, not his wife.

“The question that should have been asked of her was: can you understand why some women don't like Tony? A good answer would have reinforced her as a basically sensible person whose opinions should be listened to, and given both of them the credibility that her husband clearly lacks…

“The fight has gone out of Abbott.”

Nasking drew our attention to a pungent piece by Denise Allen on her ‘dennieallen’ website: Margie Abbott’s dummy spit.

It begins: “So Mrs Abbott – “Margie” – you seem to be a tad upset at the so-called “personal” attacks on your husband?

“Well boo bloody boo hoo. Bring out the teeny weeny violins.

“For the past two years, Labor and swinging voters (and no doubt many soft “L” Liberals) both women and men, have had to put up with the relentless, nasty, vicious and very ugly attacks on our Prime Minister that your husband has ignited and angrily fanned because of his petulant, spoilt brat, right to rule dummy spit he has raged ferociously with since 2010 because the Independents didn’t give him the nod to be PM.

“Ever since your husband failed to convince the Independents he would be a man of his word, a decent Prime Minister and that he would be prepared to do everything they wanted (except of course ‘selling his arse”), he has set about wrecking the place, with his constant negativity, talking down the economy, his “No” “No” “No” to every forward thinking policy Labor has implemented – and have been passed regardless of your husbands tantrums.

“You, like us, must have seen him proudly stand in front of the ugliest, most brutal placards ever displayed about any Prime Minister. As a fellow woman surely you must have been disgusted. Then again, Browyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella weren’t so maybe it’s a Liberal thing that you weren’t either? Anyway, I digress. Regardless, did we hear you publicly decry his stance in support of those placards? No, “Margie”, we didn’t. If you privately berated him – we’d like to know – as until such times as you tell us whether you did or not – we can only assume the obvious – that you must have wholeheartedly agreed with and supported his actions just as Bishop and Mirabella did…

“Your husband, along with his bunch of feral shadow ministers and many on his backbench, have turned the political discourse in this country into the obnoxious, wretched, ugliness it is today. Are you proud of him? I’m sure you are. You must be, because you have now come out and said what a wonderful, loving, decent man he is! To say that – you must agree with everything he says and does! Otherwise you would have the courage to say there are some things you don’t agree with him on.

“But no. You just heap praise on him as if he can do no wrong.

“Quite frankly it disgusts me.

“So get over yourself Margie Abbott… Your husband is one of the most vicious Opposition leaders in this countries history, and as he would say “Its just politics!”

“It’s about time the decent women and men of this nation fought back against your husbands’ ugly persona.”

Take that!

I could fill several pieces with similar quotes, but these will suffice. There are several conclusions:

- Tony Abbott’s ratings in polls and focus groups must be poor, and the Coalition’s ratings sinking with him.

- Margie Abbott’s intervention is a sign of desperation, no matter who initiated it.

- The concerted campaign by News Limited through its tabloids, and the TV puff pieces designed to reinforce the Margie push, points to a fearsome turn in the polls from the dead-certainty of an Abbott government after the next election to one of considerable doubt.

- The extended Margie campaign seems unlikely to impress swinging voters, and may induce those who have left Labor in the polls to return. It may turn out to be a significant negative.

The attack dog has lived within Tony Abbott for many years. The fact that this Pit Bull has licked the hand of its owner: his wife, his family, his minders, his colleagues, does not make him a Shih tzu. He is still a Pit Bull.

Away from his owners, he strains at the leash – barking, snapping, and snarling, ready to tear his opponent to pieces. Just watch him in Question Time and moving Motions to Suspend Standing Orders. Just watch him in doorstops where he bares his teeth and salivates at every chance to demean our PM or her ministers, snapping: ‘liar’, or ‘untrustworthy’, or ‘bad government getting worse’, or ‘No, No, No’, or referring to our female leader as ‘she’ or ‘her’ or ‘this Prime Minister’.

That he licks his owner's hands, like all Pit Bulls, is unsurprising; that he savages those he does not like is what has brought him to the perilous situation he now faces.

It seems likely that no matter what he now does, nothing will halt his decline.

What do you think?